Leaping and mounting: China’s changing political economy

A recent article by leading US-based China scholar, Dali Yang, tells a powerful story about the evolution of China’s political economy. The outlines of China’s truly spectacular economic progress are familiar: it has been leaping forward to become the world’s second largest economy in the world, to have the largest foreign reserves and the second largest defence budget.

The political consequences of this economic change are less understood. Among an array of great insights, four points stood out of Yang’s essay for me.

First, one in seven of China’s richest people are delegates to the National People’s Congress or members of the Consultative Committee of the Communist Party. Who would have predicted that the Party would so spectacularly become the “handmaiden for wealth accumulation by capital and families of the party elite”?

Second, there has been a massive expansion in the number of young Chinese accessing higher education. Not counting those who studied abroad, in 2014 more than 7 million students graduated from local tertiary institutions – more than ten times the figure for 1990 and at least two and half times a comparable figure for the United States.

Third, with the rise of local stations and the explosion of digital media, viewership of prime time news on CCTV has dropped dramatically, especially among the young.

Fourth, notwithstanding increased popular support for the country’s political leadership under Xi Jinping, more educated people trust the government less (even in the countryside).

As Yang puts it in closing, authoritarian developmentalism is not a stable equilibrium. He doesn’t mean that the CCP regime is currently unstable, but it does mean we need to be clear-eyed about the mounting challenges of sustaining CCP rule in the face of a slowing growth trajectory and rising expectations among a citizenry that has access to more information and is asking more questions than ever before.

China’s particular circumstances are unique, but the social and political challenges unleashed by sustained economic development are anything but. You can read Yang’s full argument here; it’s well worth it.

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