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  • 21 Nov, 2023
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Book Review

                                                                 By Rinzin Namgyal

"The Chinese Communist Party's Capacity to Rule:  Ideology, Legitimacy and Party Cohesion" by Jinghan Zeng.

This book consists of seven chapters which discuss thematically - existential crisis- ideology and power succession issues - and is followed by thorough analyses of these two factors on the question of legitimacy (from both Western & Chinese perspectives) coupled with the effectiveness of ideological education and impact of institutionalization of the authoritarian leadership in China.

The key argument of this book revolves around an ideological (formal & informal) factor that plays a leading and central role in the legitimacy question of China based on his studies on the various incidents in China and how they orchestrated such incidents to gain popular support and party cohesion. 

Dr. Zeng Jinghan, Professor of China and International Studies at Lancaster University, is the author of this book. His current research focuses on China's AI governance and Belt and Road Initiative. Professor Zeng was named in the World's Top 2% Scientists list by Stanford University and Elsevier in 2021, 2022 and 2023. He wrote numerous other books- Slogan Politics: Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy Concepts (2020), Artificial Intelligence with Chinese Characteristics: National Strategy, Security and Authoritarian Governance (2022), and co-editor of One Belt, One Road, One Story. Towards an EU-China Strategic Narrative (2021).

The existential crisis of the CCP chapter preceded by an introduction of this book generally discusses the CCP’s concern for the continuation of a one-party system as existential crisis constantly concerns the party leaders in China and a problem that is oscillating in maintaining that authoritarian rule. This chapter justifies the three elements that are causing such problems – a communist ideology, Mao Zedong, and a negative consequence of rapid economic growth (socio-economic inequality). It gives an entire range of debates that hindered the party's existence from 1949-2012 ranging from Mao Zedong’s and his legacies, where conservatives went on to support him in particular as the best example Hua Guofeng’s “Two whatever arguments” and more reform-minded top leaders who came up with a “Market socialist economy” concept guided by a planned economy as a Zhao Ziyang’s “primary stage of socialism”. Such debate over planned economy versus market socialist economy was a second debate (1981-1992) that created deep friction among the ruling elite, which in this book chapter including in the introduction highlighted “one significant factor leading to the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 that brought the party to the brink of collapse and deeply shocked the entire ruling elite of CCP. This chapter also highlighted how such incidents coupled with the second shock “Soviet Collapse of 1991” forced the party to critically evaluate and make a systematic study behind such collapse which Lewis argues is an elite disintegration & failure of its internal mechanisms of authority that have engendered the more general collapse of legitimacy and onset of political crisis in communist Eastern Europe. The third debate (1992- present) which was noted in this chapter is how far a CCP should go with capitalism and the negative impact of rapid economic growth where it created socioeconomic inequality, changing values, corruption, and environmental pollution which undermines the party's legitimacy in contemporary China. This particular chapter also represented the policies that were implemented by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in the form “ Three represents’ and “Scientific outlook on development” with an aim of sustainable development and eradication of corruption.  

The third chapter “Popular Legitimacy from the Western Perspective” can be categorized into two parts. The first part generally deals with the concept of legitimacy and its definition articulated by numerous scholars followed by wide ranges and schools of theories and approaches to define the term legitimacy, which in Prof. Huntington's words “legitimacy is the mushy concept”. We can explicitly understand the different schools of theories of legitimacy from this chapter where three main schools were written- The normative approach (measured from normative values), the Empirical theorists approach (measured from the perceptions of its people) and the Critical theorists approach followed by sub-groups in this theories. The second part reviews the regime legitimacy in China from the Western perspective, where the concept of democracy is discussed in relation to China. The Chinese way of democracy by definition is quite contrary to a Western liberal democracy based on procedural election and government accountability. The key argument of this part is the ruling philosophies of these two traditions (Western and Sinic) have a significant contradiction. This led to a whole different application of ruling philosophies in China and the existence of Western liberal capitalist democracy. This chapter also sheds light on the legitimacy sources in contemporary China, where English-language literature deeply focuses on the economic performance legitimacy, nationalism, cultural-historical traditions, and institutional change yet ideological significance is shown explicitly in all those aspects and how ideology is the main driver behind all this from a data, empirical evidences and tables collected by numerous Chinese intellectuals.  

The next two chapters discussed the legitimacy from Chinese perspectives and Ideological education in China. The key argument of the former part is that while English literature- mostly omits the ideological factor in claiming legitimacy in China, Chinese intellectuals focus significantly on ideological discourse. This chapter shows numerous tables and graphs of Chinese intellectuals on the topic of the level of regime legitimacy and threats to political legitimacy in Chinese intellectual opinions, where it shows the socioeconomic and changing values were among the top in the table of threats. Therefore, this chapter explicitly articulated or evaluated the policies regarding maintaining legitimacy analyzed by the Chinese intellectuals, and the top components are divided into three parts arguably- Ideology, governance, and social justice. The second chapter, with the continuation of the ideological discourse of the previous, greatly emphasized the topic of ideological and political education in China. Thus, articulating the formal and informal ideology- one which is for the party cohesion and the other for popular support. Formal ideology includes the official ideology of the party like Mao Zedong's thoughts, Scientific outlook of development, etc. whereas informal was broadly categorized into four parts namely- discourse of (in)stability deals mainly with the negative consequences of democracy by giving an example of distorted news on Jasmine revolution, Soviet Union and Taiwan democracy to solidified the popular opinions towards CCP. Secondly, it deals with the National condition- that the contemporary ruling policies of China fit perfectly with China and the Chinese condition. Thirdly, on the national rejuvenation and lastly on the uniqueness of China to create national sentiments and a better upcoming future moreover to put China into the right position of History. It also shows the mechanism and effectiveness of the distribution of such ideology. The party uses various methods or means to deliver the propaganda through school education, newspapers, catchy slogans, and in major international events. This chapter also gave a vacuum to future research on the topic of Ideological effectiveness in maintaining legitimacy.  

The last chapter “institutionalization of leadership transition” discussed the institutional development of power succession in China over the past three decades. It argues that this institutionalization has developed a power succession with Chinese characteristics that has guaranteed the seamless transfer of power- which rarely proceeds smoothly in authoritarian regimes. It discussed also that before institutionalization China it went through a cruel elite power struggle and became a source of instability and crisis. Moreover, after an institutionalization power transition which made it more predictable, smooth, orderly, and stable with the exploration of institutional development and key features of the Chinese succession system- routinized turnover of political elites, meritocratic bureaucracy, and representation. A section in this chapter also discussed the two crucial aspects of power succession that need to be institutionalized further- the future development of the PSC (the politburo standing committee and the contested election are particularly noteworthy). 

Numerous scholars wrote on the question of legitimacy and ideology namely Prof Huntington who went on to claim that Legitimacy is a mushy concept by its nature and Prof Lipset’s argument that it involves the capability of the system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institution are the most appropriate ones for the society. Habermas argues that problems of legitimacy are not a specialty of modern times. Contrary to the author’s argument Tony Saich argues that “CCP legitimacy is currently based on the capacity to deliver the economic goods yet Prof Vivienne Shue (2004) argues that CCP’s capability to preserve stability- constructed by truth, benevolence and glory- provides the foundation for the regime’s legitimacy. Where truth refers to (ideology) in a similar argument with an author. Meng and Yang (2012) argue that economic growth is no longer helpful in winning popular support. However, improving the performance of public services is still effective in generating legitimacy.  

The authors' reference to the ideological factor of legitimacy is based primarily on the 125 articles from Chinese media outlets and the literature of Chinese on legitimacy. I believe in private matters that ideological factor is not that important regarding claiming legitimacy if someone doesn’t even have anything to eat, that person definitely will not go towards ideological narratives as starvation and poverty is something that cause people to step out of ideology to feed themselves. But in the public sphere, I feel ideology plays a greater role in solidifying people’s opinions to create a more common and put people in a larger self that will create a sense of fraternity and solidarity thereby forgetting the individual sufferings. In a nutshell, this book elaborates on the CCP’s continuous efforts to create legitimacy with changing norms, standards, times, and circumstances in China and what factors led to the CCP's legitimacy from economic performance, ideology, nationalism, and historical-culturist approach all were discussed. A new research arena is opened by the author on how ideological factor in claiming legitimacy is needed to further establish this thesis, especially authoritarian rule. However, I saw there is a generalization and limitation in this book in aspects of minorities- as the author generalized the (legitimacy ideological aspects) of all of China including those autonomous regions like Xinjiang, Guizhou, and especially Tibet. In autonomous regions and non-Han regions especially Tibet, Ba dao ideology (repression) is much used to put citizens in line according to the CCP interest rather than those informal and formal ideologies.  A quite depth research on minority aspects of China is much needed in this book apart from an excellent scholarship on Mainland China aspects. CCP uses quite different forms of policies regarding minorities to create legitimacy which is different from what they are using in Mainland China to gain popular legitimacy.  

This book is a great book for those people who have an interest in Chinese domestic politics in general and the subject of legitimacy in particular. This book gives immense insight into the how CCP tried to create its rule through various methods and obstacles they faced in doing such. Moreover, this book deals quite long on the scholarly debates on the book topics with a strong argument. Additionally, this book is good for those budding researcher who has a keen interest in CCP and their ideological efficiencies and effectiveness in Chinese society as this book is the bible for this topic from my personal view.


(I’m Rinzin Namgyal currently studying Master’s in East Asian Studies with a focus on Chinese domestic politics, Chinese foreign policy, and Sino-Tibet and Taiwan relations from the Faculty of Social Science (Department of East Asian Studies) Delhi University. I’ve done my Bachelor in History honours from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. I’m from Odisha Phuntsokling Tibetan refugee settlement).