For the first time ever, China’s Communist Party is openly questioning its legitimacy

The Politburo Standing Committee.
The Politburo Standing Committee.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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This week, China’s ruling Communist Party invited more than 80 political figures and academics from around the world to Beijing to attend a meeting called The Party and World Dialogue 2015. Addressing the theme of “disciplining the party,” Chinese officials consulted foreign experts on combatting corruption—an uphill battle for President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012.

But a top Communist Party official also took the unusual step of proclaiming publicly that the party rules over China legitimately. Wang Qishan, head of China’s top anti-graft watchdog, said on Wednesday (Sept. 9) when he met foreign attendees including former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and former South African president Thabo Mbeki that “the legitimacy of the ruling Party lies in history, its popular base and the mandate of the people.”

The state news agency Xinhua reported Wang’s talk as follows:

Wang said the legitimacy of the ruling Party lies in history, its popular base and the mandate of the people. He said in the course of building a comfortable life and rejuvenating the nation, the CPC [Communist Party of China] has to enhance its leadership and win the trust and confidence of the people so as to address complex situations and overcome various challenges.

Wang’s talk could be dismissed as empty as any other diplomatic rhetoric, except that is reportedly the first time that the word “legitimacy” appears in the Party’s official disclosure—and the implications of that are being widely, publicly discussed in China.

The meeting is the first of its kind held by the CPC since its 18th national congress in 2012. Wang, is technically ranked sixth in the CPC’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, but his role as the head of the anti-corruption campaign makes him much more important than that— some argue he’s the second most powerful man in China after Xi Jinping.

After Wang’s speech, the Chinese internet is abuzz with uncensored discussions of whether the party does in fact have a “legitimate” right to rule citizens who did not get to choose these leaders. Even more unexpectedly, an article (link in Chinese) analyzing what his use of the word “legitimacy” could mean has been widely circulated on China’s Internet—and been republished by major news portals and state-own media—after it was first posted on messaging app WeChat on Sept. 10.

The article, from a WeChat account run by the People’s Daily newspaper, the Party’s leading mouthpiece, explains that former Chinese leaders have never talked about the legitimacy of the ruling Party explicitly before—though they haven’t been avoiding the question, it adds, as the idea was implanted in Chinese socialism.

So why is the Party raising the word “legitimacy” now? The article explains that China is again returned to the center of the world stage, and it needs to change the way that it acts:

The CPC has transferred from a revolutionary party to a ruling party through struggles and sacrifices for over twenty years. [If the Party]… does not prevent or overcome the crisis of its ruling legitimacy, but only indulges in the old thinking that “whoever conquers the world will be able to rule the world,” then it is possible that it will repeat the Soviet Union’s tragedy.

The People’s Daily is almost always the leading mouthpiece of the Communist Party’s policies and ideology. After social media like Sina Weibo and WeChat went popular, the newspaper used its accounts on those platforms to communicate with the people in a more approachable way then they did in print. The fact that the article has been widely re-posted on other media outlets also shows its significance.

It has a chilling conclusion about the reason for Wang’s talk. “To raise the question of the legitimacy of the ruling implies a deep sense of crisis,” that article ends.