(This piece also appears on The Diplomat. )

On September 9, 2015, Wang Qishan, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s de facto right hand man, openly discussed the question of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy at the “Party and the World Dialogue 2015” conference in Beijing, China’s capital. “The CCP’s legitimacy lies in history and popular support from the people. The Party is the choice by the people.” Mr. Wang publicly said to over 60 politicians and academics from home and abroad, including former South African President Thabo Mbeki and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Chinese senior cadres have long blocked public mention of the party’s legitimacy especially by high-ranking officials. Yet, private discussion and academic studies on this subject have actually intensified in recent years among scholars and policy-makers. Why the sudden mention of legitimacy in public? How is the issue of legitimacy laid out in Chinese official discourse?

The most obvious and perhaps oxymoronic explanation why someone like Mr. Wang, member of the CCP’s Politburo would raise the topic in public is that they have to.  Sixty-six years after it came into power, the CCP is no longer a revolutionary party (ge ming dang) but a governing party (zhi zheng dang). German sociologist Max Weber concluded that political legitimacy may derive from tradition, charisma, and legality or rationality. Although these are simplified ideal types, Weber’s theory of legitimacy nonetheless provides a useful framework to answer why the CCP has decided to bring up its legitimacy issue in a seemingly sudden way.

For a long time before and after it became the ruling party of the People’s Republic of China, the CCP did not need to and in fact cannot talk about seeking legitimacy from the people because of the Marxism ideology which empathized the centrality and vitality of class struggle. Its legitimacy was thus ratified not by ballot but by people’s voluntary cooperation and participation in massive political and social movements. As a revolutionary party, the CCP only claimed to be the Party of the workers and peasants. Its basis of legitimacy came from a system of majority tyranny supported by these social classes, or, as Chairman Mao famously put it, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. While Chairman Mao is still frequently brought up and worshipped by the Party as “great patriot and national hero”, Mao’s influence is and probably will not ever be as large as that before 1978, when the Party’s legitimacy was, consciously or unconsciously, based on the charisma of the leader. Not only was Mao defied as the one man who possessed the right to lead by virtue of power and heroism, but his thoughts were considered as “invincible”.

The appeal to class struggle and ideology, however, soon failed as a source of legitimacy and led to the chaotic Cultural Revolution. It was then that Mr. Deng Xiaoping and his successors began to put seeking legitimacy from a wider social base or into the party agenda. There are two mainly sources where the Party has used to claim its legitimacy: history, or what Max Weber defined as “traditional authority”, and developmentalism, or as some refer to as the so-called “East Asian Model”. Mr. Wang’s speech, though a rare public mention of legitimacy, is essentially resonating with the official Party rhetoric, that is, the CCP’s is legitimate because it has always existed. In addition, authoritarian regimes are usually headed by a strong man who is determined and able to back justify most of the political repressions by promises and economic success that benefits a majority of the dominated.

Take South Korea. While many criticize late President Park Chung-hee as dictator, Mr. Park turns out to be South Koreans’ most popular president ever. Under Mr. Park’s rule, South Korea, once occupied by Japan during World World II and devastated by Korean War in the 1950s, has transformed into one of the most developed countries both in East Asia and in the world.

Or a more recent case: Singapore, whose 2015 General Election came just two days after Mr. Wang Qishan’s speech. Contrary to what Western scholars and media predicted, Singaporeans have given the PAP a sweeping victory, helping it secure 83 of the 89 seats in Parliament while the opposition Workers’ Party only got six seats. Some of the reasons, as some analysis pointed out, are Singaporeans’ nostalgic feelings for Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and the fear that “what if we lose the PAP”. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father who died earlier this year, was in office from 1959 to 1990. Mr. Lee’s iron-fist political rule, pro-business, anti-corruption approach to government helped transform Singapore into one of the wealthiest countries it is today. Chinese analysts and party schools have long looked to Singapore’s governance and political model to justify authoritarianism and the CCP’s one-party rule. One of the frequent references they turn to is Singapore. Soon after Singapore’s election results, the Beijing-based newspaper Global Times, one of the CCP’s mouthpieces, soon described it as the PAP’s firm victory after the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, citing the PAP’s economic success for Singaporean people.

This is not to say authoritarian regime with strong leadership traditional and economic success is immune to legitimacy issues. In fact, the legitimacy crisis is more present than ever in most authoritarian countries. With the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the prime time and legacy of strong-man politics that started in the 1960s has largely come to an end. Facing a more confident and contentious public, these regimes had nothing but the economic performance to justify their authorities. And when the “economic miracle” gradually lost its magic power, accompanied by the growing social inequality, such legitimacy as promise and as tradition bears weak. The PAP in Singapore, for example, has been facing growing complaints from the people on its 5o years’ grip on power.

Such potential legitimacy crisis also explains why the CCP would rather take the risk mentioning its legitimacy in public than passively wait for others to define for it. The “Theory of Three Represents” proposed by former President Jiang Zemin, “Scientific Outlook on Development” by former President Hu Jintao, and the “Chinese Dream” by President Xi Jinping are the latest efforts by the CCP to address its concerns over the these ideological crisis of its legitimacy. If we sum up these official discourse, they all emphasize the Party’s legitimacy not with reference to the CCP’s revolutionary past, but the vitality of the CCP resulting from its ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment and to reform itself from within. Unlike the PAP, however, the CCP’s battles on legitimacy seems to be much less persuasive, even among its own members.

In recent years, the PAP in Singapore has gradually adjusted itself and appealed to the rationality embedded in constitutional and legal system; popular support manifested by the votes won through open and competitive elections became the new sources of legitimacy. While singaporeans can express their dissatisfaction by voting for the Worker’s Party, the complaints in China are reflected in the fact that people, some of whom are the CCP members, are dividing into those in favor of freedom of market and developmentalism, and those who want to return to the Mao era, and others. In the face of such public doubts, the CCP has chosen to cling to the economic miracle and resort to costly repressions, as sources of legitimacy. Even in Mr. Wang’s recent speech, there is no actual substance suggesting the Party will try to seek rationality or other news sources for its legitimacy.

In sum, while it may be “the first of its kind” that a CCP’s high-ranking official publicly discusses the legitimacy issue, there is no need to be over-excited about any hidden meanings behind Mr. Wang’s move. And much as authoritarian states like China and Singapore share traits such as emphasis on developmentalism, analysts should not be over optimistic about how the PAP has succeeded and can be replicated to China. The CCP may be facing more immediate legitimacy crisis than the PAP, who has ben actively establishing its legal and rational authority in Singapore.

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