Zheng Yongnian: Political parties transcend all social systems in China
Professor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen) highlights the Communist Party of China as a "leading party" and "developmental party"
Zheng Yongnian is a Chinese political scientist and Professor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen). He is Editor of Series on Contemporary China (World Scientific Publishing) and Editor of China Policy Series (Routledge). He is also the editor of China: An International Journal and East Asian Policy.
After receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. at Princeton University, Zheng Yongnian became a research fellow, then a professor and director of the East Asian Institute at National University of Singapore. He was Professor and founding Research Director of the China Policy Institute, the University of Nottingham, and Dean of the Institute of International Affairs in Qianhai. He was a recipient of Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
The following is Professor Zheng’s opening speech at the Baichuan Forum in Shenzhen from July 29th to 30th, in which he presented three perspectives on the theme of "Political Parties and Modernization."
Political parties in China are not a social system —but rather a top-level configuration that transcends all social systems.
China is often referred to as a "developmental state," but at its core lies the "developmental party."
The theme of this forum is "Political Parties and Modernization." Therefore, I would like to share three perspectives on this topic.
Why do we need to discuss political parties and modernization?
The first reason is the recent developments in the Chinese academic community. Since the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) introduced the concept of "Chinese-style modernization" last year, research on modernization has become a hotspot in China's academic circles. Almost every week, there are conferences or forums on the topic of Chinese-style modernization.
Last Saturday, I attended a forum titled "State Modernization from a Comparative Perspective," organized by the Institution of Political and Economics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. During this forum, we discussed modernization from various angles, which helps to deepen academic research on modernization. The Baichuan Forum, in turn, focuses on the relationship between political parties and modernization. In my opinion, discussing modernization from the perspective of political parties holds not only policy significance but also academic value in the present context.
The study of political parties in the Western academic community has undergone a transformation. During the 1960s and 1970s, political party research was a prominent field within comparative politics, producing a wealth of outstanding works. However, since the 1980s, the academic focus shifted toward research on "civil society" and "non-governmental organizations." Consequently, there have been relatively few works on political parties in the past few decades. In the realm of political practice, party politics has been in a state of decline, facing continuous crises, and often leading to governance challenges in some countries. Today, in certain countries such as the United States, the partisan conflict has gone out of control.
In China, the study of the CPC has always been given priority. However, the study of the CPC overseas has been influenced by the overall Western academic atmosphere. Some Western scholars view the CPC as an "outdated" organization that might even be on the verge of disappearance. This perception has led to a relatively shallow understanding of the CPC compared to the in-depth research on China's non-governmental organizations. The Western understanding of the CPC has been in decline to a considerable extent.
As for the research community, there are not many scholars overseas focusing on the study of the CPC. Professor Kjeld Eric Brødsgaard, who arrived from Denmark today, is one of the few exceptions. When I was working overseas in 2004, we collaborated on a compilation titled “Bringing the Party Back In”. Since then, we have jointly organized several international academic conferences centered around the CPC and published numerous anthologies. We are a minority in the academic community overseas who firmly believe that "CPC matters". Even today, our conviction remains unwavering.
The Academic Significance of Studying the Relationship between Political Parties and Modernization
The second point I would like to address is the relationship between political parties and modernization. Political parties themselves are products of modernization, and, in turn, are deeply influenced by modernization.
In the early stages of Western modernity, there was a prolonged period of absolutism. It should be emphasized that most of the basic state systems in the West were established during this period. After that, political party politics emerged with the rise of commerce and underwent significant development during industrialization and the economic growth brought about by industrialization.
Political party politics and the democratization of the West have always been inseparable. If Western political party politics were initially built upon political factions, then the beginning of democratic politics was equally marked by the emergence of political factions. "Factions" are an enduring phenomenon in human history, even in pre-modern times, where religious factions existed. The question is, why didn't these pre-modern factions give rise to political parties? This is an interesting topic, and it seems to suggest that political party politics only emerged because of Western modernization, particularly economic development based on commerce and industrialization. Economic growth led to social diversification, which led to the emergence of political parties driven by diverse interests. But no matter what, as political party politics matured, parties became the primary organizers of Western political life. Therefore, it is generally acknowledged that political parties serve as the main platform for political participation.
By placing political parties within the context of modernization, we can identify the significance of political parties as organizations. Ever since the emergence of the concept, "modernization" has been regarded as a goal worth pursuing. However, in practical terms, modernization is not only constructive but also a destructive force; modernization is not only a set of ideas but also a material power based on technological advancements.
Throughout history, modernization was first manifested as a way of thinking, a rebellious thought mainly represented by Western philosophies from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. The Renaissance dismantled the previously dominant religious-based ideological system in the West, paving the way for a modern system based on Reason. The Enlightenment elevated Reason to an unprecedented level, rendering any form of power based on irrationality (including absolute despotism) devoid of legitimacy. Henceforth, Reason was to govern all aspects of society.
The material force arising from industrialization further disrupted and swept away the foundations of traditional social orders. With the destruction and dissolution of the traditional society, the need to establish a new social order became evident. Thus, in modern times, political parties became the primary political force in establishing this new order. However, since the traditional Western elite democracy transformed into mass democracy, especially since the advent of social media, the environment in which political parties exist has undergone profound changes. Western political parties are products of national modernization; they are subservient to the state system and lack the capacity to supersede any national system. In other words, although political parties are important in the Western context, from a legal standpoint, they are just one type of social organization and cannot assert dominance over others. Once they lose their competitiveness, political parties risk losing their very foundation for existence. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand that in contemporary Western societies, political parties and other social organizations find themselves in a competition of "survival of the fittest".
Studies on political parties in developing countries yield more significant results. In the 1960s, Professor Samuel Huntington from Harvard University authored a book titled "Political Order in Changing Societies", in which the relationship between political parties and political order was one of the major topics. Huntington argued that, for many developing countries, the primary political challenge was not the establishment of a liberal democratic order as Western scholars often asserted, but rather how to establish a stable political order. In other words, the question for developing countries was not about the nature of the order but whether there was any order at all.
In modern history, modernization annihilated the old political orders in non-Western societies, yet the establishment of new political orders proved difficult, leading to a state of societal anarchy. After World War II, as decolonization proceeded, developing countries gained political independence yet many failed to establish stable political orders. Many countries continued to struggle with the legacy of colonial systems long after independence. In theory, they adopted Western-style constitutionalism, rule of law, multi-party politics, freedom of association, freedom of the media, etc. In practice, however, these institutions often remained mere rhetoric and were not effectively implemented.
In other words, many developing countries never managed to establish a stable political order. Some have even become failed states.
The Significance of the China Experience
The third point I want to emphasize is that China's experience is incredibly rare and valuable, considering the relationship between political parties and modernization on a global stage. This valuable experience, unfortunately, has not been adequately summarized because many researchers are affected by ideology when studying the CPC. President Joseph Biden of the United States characterizes the relationship between the U.S. and China as a conflict between "American democracy" and "Chinese authoritarianism", but the situation is not so straightforward. Biden may be speaking from a political standpoint, but it is undeniable that there are many scholars who approach the CPC-modernization relationship from a similarly ideological position.
Like “modernization”, the concept of "political parties" in China also came from the West. The essence of "political parties", though, is determined by culture — that is to say, intrinsic. The traditional state apparatus in China, even though it had lasted for thousands of years, was weak and inadequate in the face of highly organized Western powers in modern times. That was how China embarked on the path of modernization.
Old Chinese elites thought the strength of the West lay in its military prowess, because it defeated China with superior naval and artillery capabilities. So the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861–1895) was aimed at developing military strength. However, the movement did not lead to China's empowerment. Subsequently, various groups of elites sought different ways to save the country - some turned to commerce, others to industry, and some to education. However, these approaches proved insufficient, prompting people to turn to the political system.
Early political figures, especially Sun Yat-sen, attempted to adopt Western methods to reconstruct the country's political system, including presidential systems, cabinet systems, and multi-party systems, but they all failed one after another. Sun Yat-sen drew from the experience of the Soviet Union at that time and eventually found the Chinese way of "building a country with the party"（以党建国） and "governing a country with the party" （以党治国）. This path remained largely unchanged from Sun Yat-sen to the Chinese Nationalist Party/Kuomingtang and later the CPC, with differences primarily lying in strategies and reliance on different social groups.
There was a cultural factor at play. Since the unification of China in the Qin and Han dynasties, the “State” has always dominated various socioeconomic factors as a top-level structure. The modern Western concept of "sovereignty" and the Soviet concept of "Leninist state" contributed to the rebirth and transformation of this structure. Even though China has embraced a new political order at the structural level, the essence of this order remains rooted in culture.
Unlike in the West, political parties in China are not merely one type of social system; instead, they are the top-level configuration that transcends all social systems. In terms of function and responsibility, political parties are not only about governance but also about development. In academic circles, China is often referred to as a "developmental state," but at its core lies the "developmental party."
Any political party in modern society must peruse its governing foundation. Just like Western political parties, the CPC has also been exploring the basis of its governance. For many years, Western scholars have been discussing what is the CPC's governing foundation and put forth various theories, such as the 业绩理论 "performance theory," 调适理论 "adaptation theory," and 文化传承与转型理论 "cultural inheritance and transformation theory," among others.
Speaking from experience, the CPC has indeed been consolidating its governing foundation, such as by implementing the concept of "Whole-process People’s Democracy." However, the CPC is not just "surviving through adaptation" like Western political parties; it goes beyond that and, while consolidating its governance, also guides and leads the development in all other domains. The CPC is not merely an "adaptation party"; it is a leading party.
This is indeed the case judging from the facts. Since the economic reforms and opening up, only a few countries, China included, have achieved the "Three Sustains" on a global scale - sustainable economic development, sustainable social stability, and sustainable leadership of the system. While English-speaking countries, such as the UK and the U.S., although maintaining sustainable economic development, have encountered significant social order issues and ongoing governance crises due to the rise of populism.
How did the CPC manage to achieve the "Three Sustains" simultaneously? This is the answer we seek in this forum. As mentioned earlier, discussing the relationship between the CPC and modernization from a comparative perspective not only holds policy significance but also academic importance.
So, when it comes to comparing modernization, what does the concept of "Chinese-style modernization" imply? I believe several points are crucial.
First, the phrase "Chinese-style modernization" also indicates the existence "European-style modernization","American-style modernization" , and "Japanese-style modernization". We emphasize the diversity of modernization, where different civilizations not only interpret modernization differently but also have different approaches in pursuing it.
Second, the "Chinese-style modernization" emphasizes the necessity for a country's modernization to align with its own civilization, culture, and national conditions in order to succeed; otherwise, it may lead to failure. History shows that modernization efforts in harmony with a country's civilization, culture, and national conditions have often proved successful, whereas blind copying from other countries tends to result in failed modernization. We hope that all countries can find a modernization model that fits their own civilization, culture, and national conditions.
Third, the "Chinese-style modernization" signifies that we will not impose our own modernization model on other countries, unlike some Western countries that have pressed their own modernization model onto others.
Fourth, in the pursuit for modernization, we advocate for "civilizational dialogue", mutual learning, and mutual understanding to jointly advance modernization of the world. Dialogue and mutual learning are precisely the objectives of our conference.
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