The Chinese Regime Is Not Legitimate
Hong Kong is caught in China’s coils, as Beijing crushes its life brutally and effectively as any python does its prey. The “one country, two systems” model is reaching its anfractuous end with the new national security law imposed on Hong Kong. What China is gaining is that Hong Kong will be brought under complete control. As a consequence, Hong Kong cannot be a source of political unrest for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Nevertheless, what China lost is more considerable. What Hong Kong and other malodorous actions taken by the CCP against human rights and religious freedom reveals that the CCP lacks political legitimacy. It is important to remember this as the world commemorates the June 4th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Political legitimacy requires explicit or implicit consent from the population. China’s ideology rejects explicit consent from the Chinese people. In actuality, China’s ideology is dangerously incoherent, and diehard Party members only believe the neo-Maoism of Xi Jinping. Indeed, it is not clear that Xi is even seen as legitimate for many members of the CCP. Thus, implicit consent, which is anchored on China's economic performance, has been the pillar of the CCP’s support. The tacit agreement was that the Party’s control, corruption, and misrule, would not be questioned in return for increasing wealth. However, even before the Chinese—and the world’s—economy slows due to the consequences of COVID-19, there was ample reason to question the validity of the bargain.
With declining economic growth rates, the CCP cannot keep its side of the bargain, and tension will increase. The Chinese people cannot resist the CCP’s misrule due to the headlock the Party has on Chinese politics. The Chinese people are in a political labyrinth from which escape is impossible. Protest cannot be funneled into a movement for political reform or democracy as the omnipresent modern surveillance state prevents protest movements from being successful other than in rare and local circumstances. There is no hope of reform movement within the CCP, similar to Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. The Soviet experience is framed by the Party of an example of what it must never do. Equally, there is no possibility of the Party moderating as long as Xi is in control.
The Party has lost legitimacy, and so it rules through its monopoly of power and intense and efficient control of the Chinese people. But power and control cannot be the source of political legitimacy. There are two major implications of this.
First, the regime knows it is not legitimate, and thus the desire to ever tighten its grip on Hong Kong, religious freedom, and its Tibetan and Muslim minorities. This suppression will continue and is likely to worsen as the source of these crackdowns is rooted not in other actors, but in the Party itself. The Party is hollow. From its illegitimacy comes insecurity, and so repression flows. But the world should not expect that this repression will cause significant unrest that could lead to political change. This is due to the power of the surveillance state and ruthlessness in suppressing individuals and movements, which might blossom into viable political alternatives. The world should lament the suffering of the Chinese people, and lamentation should be followed by action to aid China's population.
Second, the CCP’s China should not be treated as a legitimate regime. It is not a normal state operating within the bounds of accepted convention. Undeniably, the CCP is in control of China now and in the foreseeable future. But the United States and the rest of the international community should not allow the CCP to bolster its claims to be the legitimate government of China. The Chinese people must determine the political legitimacy. If given a choice, they would likely prefer the government of the Republic of China or another form of representative democracy.
As the CCP rejects popular consent, the international community must treat them as beyond the bounds of acceptable international political conduct and outside international society. Accordingly, the world should view the CCP as akin to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Many measures were taken to isolate the South African regime, for example, entertainers boycotted South Africa. With China, a multifaceted approach is required and will include boycotts but also minimizing diplomatic contacts, removing Beijing from international and nongovernment organizations, decoupling the world’s economy from China. This will require significant changes for many states for whom China is the leading investor and provider of infrastructure and development. In response, those opposed to the CCP should ensure that the alternative forms of infrastructure and development, through the World Bank or bilateral approaches like Japan’s Asian Development Bank, are preferred. No state should participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, and those who are, including European states and other U.S. allies, should recognize that they are complicit in aiding an illegitimate polity.
It is time for the world to hold the CCP to account. The CCP keeps power through its security apparatus, advanced information systems, and fear. The world may not be able to change the CCP, but it can identify the regime as illegitimate and increase the cost of their rule. It should be united in supporting the liberation of the Chinese people from the CCP and foster its replacement by a legitimate regime.
Bradley A. Thayer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas San Antonio and is the co-author of How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.