The core assumption held by many Western analysts about China is that it will democratize--eventually. That supposition also argues that to produce democracy in China, it’s necessary for China to reform in such a way economically that it will open its markets and manufacturing to foreign powers.
The vast majority of Western analysts have bought into this notion and passed it on to audiences in classrooms and elsewhere for decades. The supposition is really the successor to “China, the Sick Man of Asia” notion: that China and the Chinese people cannot manage on their own, and what’s needed is a healthy dose of religion—both theological (Christianity) and ideological (democracy). It follows that Chinese leaders will come to their senses--and if they don’t, they risk the wrath of Chinese subjects, who really want to become citizens if only Beijing would get out of their way. Trying to stop change from without will ignite social fires from below, the arguments goes, and Chinese elites are enlightened enough to gradually yield to inexorable forces from outside and within.
Alongside this conception is the assumption that Chinese leaders fight for power, not policy; that policy differences are simply smoke to hide struggles for domination. Chinese elites, on the rare occasions when they are not presented as monolithic, are nonetheless presented as zero-sum power seekers—not officials who believe strongly and deeply about their nation and who actively debate and decide on policy.
These basic tenets of China’s purported capacity to change have dominated thinking and teaching about Chinese politics and economics for decades. This Establishment Narrative about China is that China is changing—incrementally perhaps, but inevitably. One must have patience, and acknowledge the evidence of these small shifts that will one day turn seismic. Chinese leaders may get sidetracked, but they want and need reform on terms that are familiar to Western readers: openness, transparency, accountability and democracy.
At least where economic practice is concerned, the Establishment Narrative has meant that companies and their consultants point to the positive, and eschew the political. Of course, there will be setbacks, these agents of outside change concede; but the overall trajectory is for financial reforms, market openness, greater transparency, and Chinese decision-makers looking to integrate China into the global economy. After all, these corporate executives and their advisers insist, Beijing understands that government legitimacy rests overwhelmingly on a robust economy. When there’s not much progress, the argument for “patience with Beijing because it’s a long and difficult process” gets trotted out. China will come around, one is told.
The problem is that the Establishment Narrative isn’t holding up—indeed, it hasn't for some time.
One major reason is that it’s really a projection of Western perspectives and values onto Chinese leaderships that have their own world-view. Chinese elites are very rarely asked what they themselves see as sustaining the Communist party’s hold on power and authority. The Establishment Narrative narrates its own story, rather than allowing Chinese officials to tell their own tale. If they were asked—directly or through close attention to their writings—the picture painted of China would be rather different.
For example, many Chinese elites see successful economic management as fundamental to maintaining social authority. But there are more than a few officials see economic stewardship as necessary but insufficient where governance in general is concerned. They see a modern economy as producing post-modern social problems: an apathetic populace who either migrates or emigrates, without little attention to residence regulations or patriotism; rent-seeking elites who behave badly; and a system where infrastructure is easier to build than trust in the government.
Indeed, a growing number of Chinese cadres see a strong economy as less central to Communist party legitimacy than an expanding capacity to supervise and guide society. As good Marxists, they believe that economics does drive politics and society. But for many of these officials, loosening control over the economy threatens to undermine the ties between the Communist party and the Chinese public. In their view, economic growth has also grown the income gap and carved a deeper and wider abyss between the government and the governed.
So, either Beijing has to find new ways of managing its citizens, or it needs to re-tighten and re-centralize its control of the economy. Reform in that respect means conservative reform—reasserting power instead of allowing it to disperse into something that might form into a sustainable civil society. There are anxieties in the party ranks and among intellectual advisers that what happened to the Soviet Union and East European regimes could occur in China, but far less than many Western scholars assume there to be—another instance of projection, incidentally.
By paying attention to what Chinese leaders and elites actually say, one will quickly see that there’s diversity in the Chinese political world-view, and that (at least since 1989), Marxist fundamentalists (or Leftists) have been a dominant force in contemporary Chinese political thinking. These forces—not human rights activists or dissidents—have had an enormous impact on the nature and process of Chinese policy in the past two decades.
It’s important to note that the politically conservative or Marxist fundamentalist impulse in Chinese politics hasn’t gone unnoticed by those scholars outside China who have examined Chinese political writings and have seen the absence of political reform in the classic Western sense. But the Establishment Narrative of a China committed to reform in the Western sense—progress through a dismantling of the State from enlightened officials within or by those discontented below—is the dominant theme in analytic and academic circles. Those few analysts who detect signs that these tendencies aren’t happening, the sponsors of The Narrative insist, aren’t looking hard enough, or get portrayed as lacking the skills to discern “what’s actually going on in China”. Challenge The Narrative hard enough and you’re labeled as someone who doesn't understand China, with all the attendant professional and social consequences that come with that sticker: conferences are composed of those for whom The Narrative is gospel; fellowships are often dispensed to those who have read this story as scripture; and social networks become self-supporting, self-fulfilling prophecies. Disagreement with the conventional wisdom is usually a career-killer, and so those who saw the rise of Party fundamentalists who might well dominate Chinese policymaking were ignored and sometimes condemned.
So, when Xi Jinping arrived on the scene and found traction—even public adulation and strong resonance in the Chinese political apparatus—there was bewilderment, and a widespread reluctance to take Xi on his own terms. That’s largely because Xi and the strategies he adopted to recentralize power and authority is a direct contradiction to the Establishment Narrative of a China eager to conform to Western expectations.