If it is to retain its legitimacy, the Chinese government needs to change the way it responds to issues. Recent incidents, relating to corruption and freedom of speech, suggest that the government needs to update its approach to take account of the increasing difficulty of maintaining a policy of secrecy on matters of public concern.
The government currently has a real basis for political legitimacy:
- The Party recruits people on a meritocratic basis to serve the population.
- It is delivering economic growth.
- It has successfully maintained law and order.
This legitimacy, though, depends upon being seen to try to serve the people to the best of its ability – in accordance with Confucian values. It is a form of legitimacy which can be lost if people start to believe that those in power are enriching themselves at the public’s expense, or if people feel that their concerns are ignored.
A Guardian report on 22 January drew attention to reports that “more than a dozen close relatives of China’s political and military leadership have been moving large quantities of money into the British Virgin Islands”. This story was not only published by the Guardian, whose website has now been partially blocked by the Chinese government, but it will have echoed around the Internet (including this website). It is very difficult to prevent corruption. The government cannot now pretend that it doesn’t exist, so its only credible course of action is to announce an inquiry to investigate the accusations.
As reported by Sky News on the same day, the government has detained a lawyer who “wrote an online article entitled China Needs A New Citizens’ Movement. Its aim was to promote government transparency and expose corruption.” Amnesty has expressed concern over the detention on the basis of human rights, and the government is worried about the publicity given to what appears to be a cover-up on the corruption issue. Matters were made worse by harassing Sky’s reporter on live television.
The government’s past policy, of cracking down on all opposition, appears to restore law and order but it carries the risk of allowing resentment to build up with no outlet for people to vent their frustration. In a democratic country, people’s frustration with one government can often be resolved by voting for its replacement at the next election – but this is not possible in China. The Chinese government could only be dislodged by a revolution, which would be unimaginably costly in terms of lives. It is therefore all the more important that people can express their concerns openly and that the government can be seen to listen.
Nowadays, with increasing use of mobile phones and the Internet, it is much easier to gather support for a protest. It is also much harder to suppress news. The best response is to listen, to announce an inquiry to investigate the complaints, and to regularly publish progress on that inquiry. The government would be much more secure if it welcomed information about corruption and demonstrated that it was intending to root it out.