I just returned from a visit to China, and it offered interesting insights. Propositions that China is collapsing from within due to internal unrest; that industrial parks and stifling manufacturing hubs are everywhere; or that the People's Armed Police (PAP) is omnipresent, are at best exaggerations. While it is true that organised political dissent could have negative consequences, it is equally true that some level of individual divergence is accepted. China has a one-party system, dominated solely by the Communist Party of China (CPC) since the PRC was founded in 1949. As far as I could tell, the aim of the CPC to build legitimacy by uplifting the lives of the people seems to have had societal impact especially after Mao's death.
A social contract is based on the primary idea "that rational citizens agree to govern themselves, because they recognise that everyone's needs are met more effectively through cooperation...
Deng Xiaoping, described by Mao as "a needle inside a ball of cotton", was the architect of China's path to economic recovery and poverty alleviation. For instance, China succeeded in uplifting 680 million people out of poverty during the period 1981-2000. This has been attributed to better governance and accountability despite the strain of internal corruption that China is trying to tackle, especially under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Urban poverty is more or less a thing of the past. Between 2000 and 2010, China's per capita income increased from US$1000 to US$5000, making it a middle-income country. Policy measures such as urban subsidies and rural pensions were instrumental in enabling China to be the driver of poverty alleviation in the world. By 2020, China aims to eradicate poverty completely. That's a tall order, uplifting another 80 million people in four years. Yet if one examines earlier patterns of gradual and targeted reform, shifting from a centrally planned economy to a market-based one by setting up special economic zones, mobilising domestic resources and encouraging innovation, China's poverty alleviation plan appears reachable.
So, what exactly is the idea of a "social contract" in China? In general, a social contract is based on the primary idea "that rational citizens agree to govern themselves, because they recognise that everyone's needs are met more effectively through cooperation." One of the core values that guide the CPC, post-Mao, is "consensus building", whereby varying interpretations and perspectives are expressed within the party but the ultimate result is based on consensus. Significantly, CPC leaders are not elected by the people; they, by virtue of being CPC members, are eligible to rise higher simultaneously within the CPC ranks and in public office. Factors such as patronage, merit, ideological purity, play a critical role in this process; sometimes, ideological purity and patronage may trump merit. This is not very unlike democracies, where elected Presidents and Prime Ministers routinely choose their close advisers, based, not purely on merit, but on personal loyalty and shared ideologies.
The social contracts that the CPC highlights are its commitments to stability, prosperity, and upgrading living conditions for its citizens. Its legitimacy is tied to achieving these commitments.
The level of commitment to China's development, and ensuring a decent life for its citizens, will thereby depend on how much importance the CPC accords to establishing an enabling environment. Or, how much it will be stifled by state-driven coercion, both visible and invisible, to serve the self-aggrandising motives of party leaders. For instance, President Xi has been accused of using his anti-corruption drive to purge CPC leaders that had historically opposed him or were not loyal enough. If true, that's a pretty bad example to set, and the Chinese political system lacks robust institutional checks and balances to limit such behaviour. On the other hand, President Xi's anti-corruption drive, which does not spare high-ranking officials if found guilty, may have resulted in discontent and factionalism, especially instigated by former corrupt officials. It is likely that there is a counter-campaign within the CPC to portray President Xi's anti-corruption drive as aimed at purging dissidents within the party, to discredit the effort. We may not know for sure.
In the next 20 years, China is expected to witness 310 million people move to its cities. From my visit to its cities, it is visible that China has been able to organise well with regard to community housing, roads, public spaces and transport. Unlike the off-repeated foreigner lament that if you do not know Mandarin, you are a lost visitor in China, my experience proved otherwise. My metro rides offered guidance in both English and Mandarin; waiters in restaurants used mobile apps to translate my orders in English to Mandarin; and people helped me out when I got lost. The situation may be starkly different in rural areas, but we should remember that China is urbanising rapidly.
Challenges that I foresee for China are high levels of pollution, income inequality, an aging population that will require social security, and its foreign policy with regard to its neighbours and the US. Debates on environment have already started in earnest within China. The CPC, instead of stifling such debates, should listen to academic/civil society perspectives if it is serious about tackling environment issues. Foreign policy towards its neighbours and the US should not be opaque.
The social contracts that the CPC highlights regularly are its commitments to stability, prosperity, and upgrading living conditions for its citizens. Its legitimacy is tied to achieving these commitments. Thereby, the CPC should simultaneously work out a plan to sustain its development goals by respecting concerns for clean air and a healthy lifestyle. Otherwise, pollution could become an Achilles heel.