Communist Party of China and the crisis of social contract in a globalised world

Written By: Mahesh Kumar Kamtam
Delhi Published: Apr 13, 2020, 12:21 PM(IST)

File photo of Chinese President Xi Jiping. Photograph:( Reuters )

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It is for certain that COVID-19 will redefine the limits of globalisation and continue to shape Chinese politics in the times to come

Today the world is witnessing an outbreak of a global pandemic ‘COVID-19’, unseen in the recent past, illustrating the fragile nature of a globalised world. The case of ‘COVID-19’ is more relevant to the Communist Party of China (CPC) than to anyone else. It shows how the sudden and unanticipated outbursts could create global reverberations in a globalised world. That could put the regime in a precarious position, threatening the unwritten social contract—the legitimacy of CPC is driven by its ability to deliver economic prosperity to its Citizens. 

Nevertheless, increasing global economic integration has driven China's domestic growth in the past. With global growth set to slow down significantly and COVID-19 set to push the growth to new low, as the early predictions show signs of recession. The rise in ‘uncertainty’ cast a shadow of doubts on the goals set forth by CPC. China has entered into a “New Era”, an era where Xi Jinping, CPC General Secretary, targets to wipe out the extreme rural poverty —through an increase in per capita income and achieve a “moderately well-off society”(  Xiaokang society), by 2021— the hundredth anniversary of CPC formation. 

Today, China is more connected to the world than in the past. According to the World Economic Situation and Prospects Report 2020, released by the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), China alone contributed 0.75 per cent out of an average 3 per cent of the global growth. These indicators not only reflect the major trends in globalisation, but the extent to which China is connected in a globalised world. 

Nevertheless, globalisation is not a linear progression, but a tumultuous ride. Increasingly complex challenges due to globalisation—where the domestic events could have large-scale global repercussions —with ‘phenomena of coronisation’, describing the limits of globalisation. CPC is set for more challenging times in a globalised world. 

The world is stepping into a new era of political, social and financial instability driven by COVID-19, with global growth set to decline and alarm bells ringing by IMF on a possible recession soon.

The inability to maintain economic growth and rise in inequality fuelled by low growth, in future, are more immediate threats that could undermine the social contract, leading towards domestic instability. It is not only the domestic challenges that Xi Jinping will face, but political criticism of his policies, handling of the COVID-19 crisis and social instability caused by a slump in the production are the biggest challenges in the decades that CPC is set to face for the time. 

While CPC has shown the ability to manage the ‘domestic uncertainties’, by delivering economic results, mastering propaganda and control over information flow. However, these strategies no longer serve the effectiveness for ensuring CPC legitimacy and Xi’s rule to govern. For instance, take the case of mounting discontent among the Chinese citizens in the early stage of the outburst of COVID-19, where the local officials tried desperately to cover-up the ‘truth about the outburst’, fearing the response from the central government. To alleviate growing citizen distrust of the central leadership and Xi’s rule, CPC reacted by sacking the Hubei Party chief Jiang Changling and Wuhan mayor Ma Guoqiang to calm down the public anger thus effectively channelising the growing resentment toward the local officials.  

What is more worrying for the CPC at the moment is the echoing of the anger from Chinese people themselves against the Xi’s rule. The death of Li Wenliang, a doctor who alerted the Chinese Local officials during the early stages of outbreak, was forced to silence by the local officials by hiding the truth about the outburst. This event raged widespread discontent amongst the people and netizens alike, for instance, the popular social-network sites Sina Weibo and Wechat platforms surfaced with the lyrics of a song- “Do you hear the people sing” —an popular song which was widely used during the Hong Kong protests in 2019. Denoting public anger and failure of the early response to COVID-19. CPC blocked the ‘anthem of protest’ in mainland China and subsequently, launched a massive propaganda operation to regain the lost legitimacy: The "gratitude education campaign", which eventually backfired against the party for placing its role over the hardship endured by Wuhan residents. 

These are the early shoots of symptoms of Xi Jinping losing control over the CPC narrative and threat to his legitimacy to rule. Jude Blanchette, director of China studies program at the Center for Strategic International and Security Studies argues that “CPC has reoriented itself from time to time to meet the changing demands in the society and CPC is more focused on long-term threats than the short term disruptions like the COVID-19 crisis”. Indeed, it is true to some extent that COVID-19 may be a short term disruption rather than a long term threat to the stability of the regime and to Xi Jinping’s rule. First, the mounting discontent is a sporadic outburst of anger, then the sustained and coordinated movement challenging the ‘Party’s mandate to rule’. Second, during the outbreak of SARS in 2002, where CPC faced a similar situation, responded by stifling dissent and placing stringent measures in place. 

Nevertheless, it is for certain that COVID-19 will redefine the limits of globalisation and continue to shape Chinese politics in the times to come. It could bring more democratic order, not necessarily democracy in China —that demands more responsibility and accountability of the CPC towards society in general and citizens in particular. 

 (Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Mahesh Kumar Kamtam

Mahesh Kumar Kamtam is a Research Intern at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS). He is currently enrolled as a PhD Scholar in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. 

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