Opinion: China's More Open Society and the Dynamics of Political Change

China's political landscape is evolving in subtle but significant ways, as it develops economically and a more assertive and socially aware population emerges.

Date Posted

8 Jan 2010


Issue 8, 14 Aug 2010

Many observers have taken note of China's increasingly active role on the world stage, commensurate with its rising political clout and economic prowess. Its international credentials have been further boosted by its quick rebound in the global economic crisis. However, a preoccupation with China's diplomatic and foreign policy forays underestimates the intractable domestic challenges it still faces, particularly as it becomes a more open society. While democratising measures have been introduced to try to address these concerns, the key issue is whether these are sufficient to maintain social stability in a vast and complex nation. Ultimately, the pace of political change will depend on prevailing conditions and, more critically, on whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) assesses that more radical change is in its best interests. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the CCP is pragmatic enough to make the necessary adjustments when circumstances demand.


China's sterling economic performance has often been attributed to its past three or so decades of reform and open door policies. Equally important, though less conspicuous, is the emergence of a more open society as a result of these policies. This greater openness is manifest in the growth of a more politically aware and, in some instances, more assertive population. In both urban and rural areas, the public has generally become more aware of their rights and are prepared to speak up, especially on issues that impinge on their interests.

This is evident in the public response to the eviction or insufficient compensation of farmers when their land is cleared for redevelopment. One well-known case was the Chongqing nail-house, where a couple held out against pressure from developers and local officials for almost three years (from 2004 to 2007). Given the intense publicity surrounding this case, local officials were careful not to appear heavy-handed. Eventually, a resolution was reached through negotiations, with the state media hailing the amicable outcome arising from the compromise.

The Internet has further facilitated the opening up of society. Today, China has the world's largest Internet population of 384 million; it continues to grow by double digit percentages annually. There are also an estimated 766 million cell phone users in China. This information revolution implies that many ideas and viewpoints are being expressed and exchanged on bulletin boards, chat-rooms, instant messaging systems and phones, beyond the control of official censors. Realising the potential of this phenomenon, Chinese leaders, at both the central and local levels, have used the Internet and other media platforms to reach out to a wider audience, particularly among the tech-savvy younger generation. Increasingly, the views of the public are being taken on board in formulating public policies. Furthermore, Chinese leaders realise the importance of releasing timely and accurate information in responding to natural disasters or mishaps in an effort to be more accountable to the public.

Significantly, the Chinese leadership has signalled their encouragement for a more open society. Both General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have emphasised the importance of mass supervision by the people as a means to curb malpractice and abuse of power by public officials.1 This is intended to improve governance, and ultimately strengthen the CCP and the Government's legitimacy. On the other hand, this also means that the CCP and the Government will be subject to public calls for greater official accountability and transparency.

Ultimately, the pace of political change will depend on whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) assesses that more radical change is in its best interests.

There have already been instances where the public have disclosed cases of official extravagance, corruption or abuse of power, particularly via new media channels such as the Internet which is the most effective way to reach a wider audience while at the same time allowing the source of the information to remain anonymous. Most importantly, the Chinese leadership seems to have treated such revelations seriously, taking action to punish the perpetrators after verifying the authenticity of these accounts.

Any perception of mismanagement could become more costly politically and erode public confidence in the leadership.

Other grievances that have caused public discontent include: urban-rural divide; income disparities; the treatment of migrant workers and their family members in cities; the lack of social welfare and affordable public housing; environmental pollution and degradation. With the rise of a more assertive population and loosening information flows, Chinese leaders and officials have come under closer scrutiny for the way they handle major events such as earthquakes, mining accidents, epidemics and other major civic mishaps. As a result of the rapid and extensive reach of new media channels, any perception of mismanagement could become more costly politically and quickly erode public confidence in the CCP leadership.


To meet rising public expectations for transparency and accountability, the CCP has proactively initiated various democratising measures at three broad levels: intra-party, grassroots and the civil society (especially through sanctioned non-governmental organisations or NGOs). In addition, taking the cue from the top, local leaders have adopted a people-oriented stance in resolving local disputes.

Intra-party Democracy

Intra-party initiatives refer to measures or mechanisms that allow CCP members to "voice" their views and perspectives on different issues, and to hold the CCP leadership accountable to its members. Hu Jintao has particularly stressed the importance of intra-party democracy. Significantly, the current Vice President Xi Jinping was appointed after securing the most votes in a semi-competitive poll among provincial/ministerial-level and above officials,2 even though he was not Hu's preferred candidate as his heir apparent. This outcome tacitly recognises that internal voting is an important factor in deciding future leaders of the CCP.

Grassroots Democracy

Grassroots democracy refers to political processes that are open to the participation of individuals in which they have a say in decisions and policies that directly affect them. Central to this mechanism is the holding of village elections, in which (since the 1980s) villagers can vote directly for a committee to manage the daily affairs of the village. The village, however, falls outside the basic level of administration in China; the political impact of these elections is therefore fairly limited.

Going beyond the village, the CCP introduced direct elections at the township level — the basic level of administration in China — on an experimental basis in Suining County in Sichuan in 1998. Thereafter, various permutations in the election of township officials have been introduced in several counties in a number of provinces. The positions open to elections have been extended from township vice mayors to township mayors, and sometimes even township party secretaries. According to one estimate,3 the number of such cases increased from a dozen in the mid-1990s to several hundreds in the late 1990s, and to several thousands by the early 2000s.

Civil Society

While the CCP used to be hostile to any form of social organisation, perceiving them as harbouring motives that threaten its hold on power, it has since recognised that such bodies can play a positive role in providing feedback or offering useful non-political services so long as they do not challenge the authority of the CCP. As a result, NGOs in China have grown in number — there were a total of 424,780 NGOs in 2009, an increase of 6.4% from 2008.4

In part, these NGOs have also emerged in response to the demands of a more diversified society which the CCP finds hard to meet. In areas such as poverty reduction, healthcare, environment, social welfare and charity provision, NGOs are sanctioned and encouraged to play a greater role. However, in more sensitive areas such as religion, ethnicity, political reform and human rights, the influence of NGOs is much weaker. Some NGOs are also more powerful than others. For instance, most commercial-related social organisations are quite influential due to the financial resources they wield.

The influence of NGOs in China can also depend on context and timing. During the Sichuan earthquake that struck China in May 2008, the CCP and government officials gave substantial leeway to NGOs to render disaster relief and assistance, especially in the initial period when communications with the stricken areas had been cut off. The effectiveness of these NGOs on the ground often depends on factors such as their credibility, the mindset and attitude of local officials towards them, and their ability to coordinate their work with the local administration.

A More People-Oriented Image

Besides these directed political policies, local leaders have also tried to present themselves with a more people-oriented and sympathetic face when attempting to defuse potentially explosive situations. A notable example took place in November 2008: Chongqing was faced with a strike involving reportedly more than 8,000 taxi drivers with a host of grievances ranging from a rise in taxi rental fees and fuel shortages to unfair competition from unlicensed taxi operators. Rather than resort to police action or impose a news blackout which would most likely have escalated the situation, the Chongqing government held a number of press conferences to publicise the steps it was taking to address the taxi drivers' grievances. Most notably, Chongqing's Party Secretary Bo Xilai (who is also a Political Bureau member) held direct talks with representatives of the taxi drivers, taxi companies, fuel operators and members of the public which were aired live on local television. This transparent approach of open dialogue and the speedy address of the taxi drivers' concerns helped to restore public calm.


These intra-party and grassroots political innovations and even the greater leeway given to NGOs to perform non-political functions all indicate that the CCP is proactively adapting itself to stay relevant to the times. By doing so, it intends to hold on to power for many years to come.

The question is whether these political innovations are sufficient to ensure social and political stability.

Nevertheless, critics have highlighted the limits of such political innovations. While there is increasing emphasis on intra-party democracy, the Chinese political system is still very much a top-down process. Also, while grassroots democratic processes have taken place at the village and township levels, it is doubtful whether this will be progressively extended to include the administrative levels higher up. In civil society, NGOs are subject to various regulatory requirements, one of which is to find a relevant ministry or agency in China that is willing to sponsor their registration. This can be hard to come by as government agencies are careful not to be associated with a potentially controversial organisation. And while the personal touch of individual leaders such as Bo Xilai are certainly welcome, these individual efforts are of limited impact in a vast country. China needs a more comprehensive and systemic approach.

In the final analysis, it is important for the Chinese leadership to nurture the right kind of institutions to create an inclusive system that can best address the concerns and grievances of the people. To be sure, they have taken steps in this direction in an incremental manner as demonstrated above. The question is whether these political innovations are sufficient to ensure social and political stability. It is at least clear that the Chinese leadership knows more needs to be done to improve the existing political system (with the CCP firmly at the helm).

In the past, when faced with a crisis, the CCP has shown that it has the mettle to make painful decisions. Most notably, the Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Congress endorsed an open door and reform policy in 1978 that set China on a course of growth and prosperity. Thirty years later, in 2008, the Chinese leadership reacted quickly by devising a 4-trillion yuan stimulus package to cushion the impact of the global economic crisis. Due to this and other measures, China was able to engineer a quick recovery. With such a track record, it seems reasonable to conclude that when tough decisions need to be made, the CCP should be up to the task.


Lye Liang Fook is Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. His research interests cover China's central-local relations, political legitimacy, print media, China-ASEAN relations and China-Singapore relations. He was part of a team that completed a study on the Suzhou Industrial Park, a flagship project between China and Singapore. He has also conducted research into the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city project, the latest flagship project between China and Singapore.

Professor Zheng Yongnian is Director of the East Asian Institute. He is Editor of Series on Contemporary China (World Scientific Publishing) and Editor of China Policy Series (Routledge). He is also a co-editor of China: An International Journal. He has studied both China's transformation and its external relations. His papers have appeared in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, Political Science Quarterly, Third World Quarterly and China Quarterly. He is the author of 13 books, including Technological Empowerment, De Facto Federalism in China, Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China, and Globalization and State Transformation in China, and co-editor of 11 books on China's politics and society, including the latest volume China and the New International Order (2008).


  1. See"在人民日报社考察工作时的讲话". Speech delivered by President Hu Jintao while on a study visit to the People's Daily Bureau on 20 June 2008 at http://media.people.com.cn/GB/40606/7409348.html. See also "Premier Wen talks online with public", China Daily dated 28 February 2009 at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2009-02/28/content_7522765.htm
  2. At the 17th CCP Congress in October 2007, the CCP Central Organisation Department asked officials to vote on candidates to the Political Bureau Standing Committee. Xi Jinping secured the most votes, followed by Li Keqiang, He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang. In the interest of political stability, Hu Jintao and other leaders accepted the election results.
  3. Hairong Lai, "The Causes and Effects of the Development of Semi-Competitive Elections at the Township Level in China since the 1990s", PhD thesis, Department of Political Science, Central European University, Budapest, January 2008. http://web.ceu.hu/polsci/dissertations/hairong.pdf
  4. NGOs is used here broadly to refer to social organisations (社会团体), civil non-enterprise institutions (民办非企业单位) and foundations (基金会). See statistics provided by China's Ministry of Civil Affairs at http://cws.mca.gov.cn/article/tjsj/qgsj/

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