Review of Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability

Book Review: Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability

Wen-Fang Tang (New York: Oxford University Press)

Review by Leigh Martindale, Lancaster University / Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry

Wielding an impressive data set covering twenty years of national and cross-national surveys Tang in his book attempts to explain the paradox of Chinese political culture: the continued strong public support for the Chinese Communist Party whilst at the same time, an increase in mass public demonstrations and protests. Central to Tang’s argument of ‘populist authoritarianism’ is the concept of ‘Mass Line’ (qunzhong luxian) in which scattered ideas are taken from the masses, concentrated in a systematic form via the state apparatus and then propagated back to the masses.  Key here is the assumption that there is “a close and direct relationship between the party the Party and the masses, or between political power and society” (6). Between the concept of ‘Mass Line’ and his survey data Tang concludes that China, despite the view of many, is in fact highly politicised, and in order to maintain political power and stability, the Chinese government is forced to be actively responsive to it citizens.

Giving the book a particular critical-weight is the way in which Tang, in each chapter, gives a succinct and yet thorough literature review for each argument he makes. Always citing the wide range of differing opinions, and the evidence for them, before making his Chinese-centred claim gives the book a distinct authority on the subject.  While the sole basis for the book’s many claims is derived from quantitative survey data – a problematic source when used in isolation, especially in China – Tang takes pains repeatedly, to convince the reader that Chinese respondents are outspoken and critical on politically-sensitive survey questions. Indeed, the author devotes his penultimate chapter to this issue with an experimental study designed to gauge the levels of participant openness during surveys.

The best moments of the book come when Tang’s interpretation of the data reveals some insightful ironies about Chinese political culture. For example in Chapter 3 ‘Nationalism and Regime Sustainability’ Tang points out that when the West pushes a human rights agenda, China’s often nationalistic response serves to divert public demand for democratisation. Chapter 7 ‘Individual Dispute Resolution’ also intriguingly highlights how, despite mainstream predictions, rule of law is not becoming more institutionalised as marketization grows in China. Tang also, through his extensive statistical analysis, is able to challenge accepted orthodoxies in political science literature, most notably perhaps  when he suggest that strong levels of interpersonal trust and high social capital are not necessarily elements reflective of democratic countries.

Tang’s book, without specifically aiming to do so, is also especially useful for any researcher keen to understand how ‘politics’ actually works in China – a country without strong civic/political institutions.  For example, Chapter 7 contains a good overview of the non-institutional channels available to Chinese citizens in overcoming the disputes and issues they face. In Chapter 5 ‘Political Trust in China and Taiwan’, Tang too gives good examples of Chinese government political-responsiveness in comparison to the relatively inert Taiwanese government example.

However, some problems do come with Tang’s reliance on quantitative survey data that goes beyond the issue of survey scales and questions meaning different things for different people. Chapter 4 ‘Interpesonal Trust and Regime Sustainability’ for example is based on one report – made in 2002 based on early 1990’s data (59) – that indicates China is unusual for having high levels of interpersonal trust without having democratic freedom. Based on my own fieldwork experiences, I find this assumption remarkable considering the level of cynicism my contacts, friends and participants had in China. Whilst recognising that my own fieldwork has a particular urban bias, for such a framing assumption to be made requires a larger evidence base. Another issue is how Tang sometimes made equivalences between categories without a rationale. In one case, he equates high internal efficacy to high levels of interpersonal trust without a detailed explanation (88).

In sum, Tang has proposed a preliminary theoretical framework – populist authoritarianism – to explain why autocratically administrated countries may also display characteristics normally associated with democratic countries. It not only provides scholars and useful political framework to approach China with, and challenges some of the orthodoxies of political science, but also invites scholars to build and advance his notion of ‘populist authoritarianism’.


Comments are closed.