“We don’t know who we can believe in. As Chinese we probably should have confidence in our country, but getting hurt again and again has made us lose faith.”
Chinese marketing employee Huo Xiaoling said this in an interview with The New York Times after a July report revealed that more than 200,000 babies had been injected with defective vaccines manufactured by a Chinese company. Huo Xiaoling’s one year-old daughter was among those make sick by the vaccine.
The incident in July was the third scandal in the country tied to defective vaccines since 2010, and one of many health-related scandals in China over the past decade. However, this incident comes uniquely at a time when the government and the people are increasingly at odds. While Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated power within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese people are slowly losing faith in his regime.
Since last year, Xi has placed loyalists into head positions in the government and added his official philosophy of “Xi Jinping Thought” into China’s constitution. With his party behind him, he successfully abolished term limits on the presidency, which essentially allows him to be China’s dictator for life. Additionally, coercive efforts are being made to politically and culturally homogenize China’s population, including the placement of Uighur Muslims in internment camps and attempts to force Christians in the country to renounce their faith.
“Xi Jinping has consolidated more power than anyone since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, and he’s probably consolidated more power in his own hands than Deng Xiaoping,” said Daniel Mattingly, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University.
At the same time, however, public trust in Xi’s government appears to be fraying. In July, Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun delivered arguably the fiercest attack on Xi’s government from a Chinese academic in recent memory. The Hong Kong Nationalist Party has resolved to combat further Chinese encroachment on its rights. Additionally and most notably, the revelation about the defective vaccines caused a two-day protest in Beijing.
What does the simultaneous increase in government power and growing public mistrust of government mean for China’s regime? It means the stability of the state will begin to erode. To be sure, a public revolt in the short-term is unlikely. Public opinion polls suggest that the Chinese citizenry’s trust in the central government is remarkably high for an authoritarian regime. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, a comprehensive online survey of residents of over 30 developed or developing countries, found that Chinese citizens trusted their government the most among all countries in the sample. While many factors play into this, a key reason for this popularity is the government’s success at increasing China’s prosperity and quality of life. While many factors play into this measurement, a key reason for this popularity is the government’s success at increasing China’s prosperity and quality of life.
“The Party has has delivered three, going on four, decades of really rapid economic growth,” according to Mattingly. “Who’s shepherded China through this period? The CCP. I think that’s the main thing that undergirds the CCP’s legitimacy and popularity in China.”
However, Xi’s recent consolidation of power presents a threat to this continued success: corruption. Corruption prospers in a government controlled by relatively few people; when fewer people run more of the government, it’s easier for them to pick winners and losers with government policy and discretion in the enforcement of laws. Increased corruption leads to instability by further taking away influence from the people in government affairs. It also leads towards Party leadership becoming less diverse and flexible than before, which could cause the gap between the opinions of the state and its citizens to widen. And while Xi Jinping has centered his presidency in part around reducing business and political corruption in the country, these efforts have had mixed results at best. In fact, Xi has used his anti-corruption campaign to replace government and military leaders from previous administrations with individuals specifically loyal to him.
Corruption is not the only threat to the power of China’s population; centralized power itself also promises to decrease their influence. While China has been authoritarian since the days of Mao, local political leaders have usually been given significant autonomy to respond to people’s needs on the ground level. Scholars such as Andrew Nathan of Columbia University have written that this contributes to the Chinese citizenry’s faith in its government. But if Xi centralizes policy decision-making in China, the freedom of these local actors will decrease. As Xi focuses on controlling his government, policies at the local and provincial level will be adaptable to people’s needs, which may cause public belief in the system to weaken.
The recent slowdown of China’s economy also threatens the sustainability of public trust. While the country’s GDP increase per quarter has remained fairly stable over the last two years, this rate is far lower than the usual percentage from the past decade. Investment in infrastructure has dropped precipitously since 2017, which threatens long-term economic growth. Some indicators suggest that consumer spending is down as well, which would indicate consumers have less spending power or are nervous about the economy. Recent tariffs on China proposed and implemented by the Trump administration, which will affect over $200 billion of goods if implemented, are likely to hurt growth as well. China’s citizens are less likely to be happy with the performance of their government as the economy flounders, which could undermine the people’s trust in the CCP’s ability to provide for them.
Another threat to the Chinese government comes not from the public, but from within. The Chinese government’s stability over the past 40 years has been supported by its consistently peaceful transitions of power. Presidents were limited to two five-year terms, but Xi’s recent abolishment of term limits eliminates this stabilizing factor and makes succession and leadership crisis akin to those seen in the U.S.S.R. and other autocracies.
“The problems of transitions between leaders is really the Achilles heel of autocratic regimes,” said Mattingly. “It seemed like the CCP had solved this problem that bedevils autocracies by having this institutionalized system of power change. I think this does change China’s long-term trajectory. It increases the likelihood of . . . things happening like an [intra-party] coup.”
While a coup is by no means guaranteed, the abolishment of term limits makes it more likely to occur and also increases the probability of less dramatic inner-party struggles occuring that was be destabilizing in their own right. And while Xi is already using authoritarian methods to suppress this sort of public and political discontent, these efforts have largely been successful in part because of the country’s current success and political norms. As these factors fade away or are removed, the Chinese government will find it much harder to maintain public satisfaction in the future, casting a shadow over the country’s long-term stability.