China's embrace of elites helps it to bounce back - SOAS China Institute

//China’s embrace of elites helps it to bounce back

China’s embrace of elites helps it to bounce back

Great Hall of the People – Photo credit: Forezt (Wikimedia Commons)

By Rowan Callick | 27 November 2020

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) came under heavy fire in the first half of 2020.


It suffered pushbacks at home for prioritising surveillance and control over timely release of information about COVID-19, and abroad for the ruthlessness of its thrust for regional dominance and global influence, as well as for allegedly letting the pandemic escape.


But that’s been turned around swiftly. The PRC has surfed that wave of disapproval, and has resumed its course to achieve key communist party goals by retaining the backing of the elites that count, both within China and overseas.


Now Antony Blinken, a suave, French-speaking Europe-expert, has been appointed as incoming Secretary of State, Beijing may start to anticipate a quieter life on the US front too. Some online jokers are even already re-branding the great imperial palace the For-Biden City. Way too early to know for sure how the new White House will approach China, but it will be more predictable and methodical than the disruptive Trump era.


At home, Xi Jinping reasserted his absolute authority by demonstrating to the crucial party elite that his adroit new narrative has won back convincingly the support of China’s laobaixing or ordinary folk. He achieved this through an all-platforms campaign re-badging himself the People’s Leader, winning a momentous victory in the People’s War against COVID.


Despite many rumours swirling as 2020 advanced, in the end none of China’s party elite risked moving against Xi. Then he celebrated this dominance in elite politics by subjugating Hong Kong through a two-pronged strategy – imposing the new National Security Law that operates outside the regular common law structures, and deploying to key roles cadres with a proven record of implementing his’s tough approach in regional China, while chief executive Carrie Lam is relegated to a role akin to that of a mayor in a Chinese township.


Overseas, the PRC has suffered strong criticism from Asian and Western governments that have moved to quarantine key areas from PRC influence, and from their broad populations that increasingly resent its newly swaggering style. But the party-state seems to have retained its extraordinary influence with key elites, especially in corporations, academia, and regional and local governmental levels, as well as with Belt and Road Initiative partners around the world that are recipients — or like Australia’s state of Victoria, hopeful would-be recipients — of Beijing’s economic largesse.


Through a combination of patient persuasion, hospitality and flattery, and most importantly commercial enmeshment, the PRC’s high-value elite partners appear to continue to believe China’s interests are also genuinely the best interests of their own country or organisation.


The main key to China’s rare success in gaining globally not only respect but also support for its rise, has been its capacity to weaponize its economic heft. The assumption that China’s economy will continue to surge can characterise almost any step closer to Beijing as “win-win”.


The party-state’s elite partners would be shocked to see themselves portrayed as duplicitous, fellow-travelling or mercenary “moles” in the way friends of the Soviet Union were widely viewed during that Cold War. Instead, they insist it is their very patriotism, or their corporate loyalty, that drives their desire for alignment with the Chinese dream, which they view as a vision for mutual, perhaps even global, betterment. The former head of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, Bilahari Kausikan, said last year: “China doesn’t just want you to comply with its wishes, it wants you to do what it wants, without being told.”


Now, how the PRC – emerging from the pandemic in which many capitalist countries remain mired – seeks to extend its international influence through its artful co-option of elites – and what governments and other institutions can do in response – will be key questions for the remainder of the 2020s.


The PRC is itself an elitist state – ruled for its 71 years by the leadership of the party whose members, today totalling 91 million, run every significant organisation in China – which seeks to intensify its influence on counterpart elites without distracting itself by devoting serious energy to seeking to win over the world’s “masses”.


Those masses’ capacity is limited, under CCP rule, to emotion rather than thought, incapable of being trusted to participate responsibly in political life even at the lowest administrative levels now Beijing has all but abandoned its Deng-era experiment in “local level democracy,” but accorded a capacity — even a propensity — to feel. Thus critics of the PRC can readily be accused of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”


The elites with which Beijing engages makes themselves available, whether consciously or unwittingly, to carry out three roles: to speak out publicly – either positively about China, or if not, critically about the role of other countries or institutions deemed unhelpful to the party-state; to sign up to documents drafted by PRC officials; and to replicate and amplify key talking-points in meetings and in articles.


Such talking-points include that to criticise the PRC is to be racist, that any falling out between your country and the PRC is primarily the former’s fault, that the rise of the PRC, especially economically, is inexorable, that the PRC and CCP cannot be separated out from “China” and the Chinese people, and that China can only be governed effectively by a firm central autocratic ruler.


The special ingredients that make China’s strategy work so well, magnetising members of cosmopolitan elites who are usually so sceptical and worldly-wise, are surprisingly straightforward, they even appear rather 20th century, and they are thoroughly integrated. They include flattery, ensuring the recipients feel treasured, sometimes in contrast with how they feel perceived back home; red carpet treatment while travelling; a sense of becoming “insiders” granted access to privileged information; and ready access to China, when gaining a visa is increasingly challenging.


Work undertaken by international elite partners and paraded on China’s mass and social media also provides an important reinforcing layer in the party’s domestic legitimisation, which is what always matters most.

Rowan Callick, the author of Party Time: Who Runs China And How, three times a China correspondent, is an industry fellow at Australia’s Griffith University Asia Institute.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.


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