China in Transition |

China in Transition

0117_MacFarquhar_w170China’s recent most leadership transition have made international headlines with its domestic and international implications. How would the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the Chairman of the Military Commission, Xi Jinping strengthen the Chinese model of governance which is becoming increasingly fragile and domestically challenged? Professor MacFarquhar began by briefly discussing a historically transiting China, saying that “China and the rest of us are always in transition”. China experienced three main transitions since the middle of the 19th century, with spates of ‘trauma’ in-between.

One such transition was from the Imperial Qing Empire to that of a republic. What remained was grassroot Confucianism, premised on family values. The ‘trauma’ leading to this transition was the challenge from Japan during the 1894-1895 war. This was the first challenge coming to the Empire from a nation-state that the Chinese thought had borrowed so much from itself culturally. This convinced the elite that systemic reform was imperative to defending the ancestral empire.

The second transition lasted from 1912 to 1949. During the civil war between the Chinese Communists and the nationalists, the latter were defeated and the communists formed the Communist Party of China (CCP). This was China’s first ever party, which was founded with the objective of reuniting the Chinese. While the people of China were clear about wanting to belong to a new system that would ensure peace and stability, not many — including the elite — really knew what the ideology of communism was.

Finally, the last major transition the 19th century saw was Maoist China of the 1950s to 1970s to Deng’s China of the late 1970s, 1980s through to the present day. Despite the second transition, MacFarquhar argued that the main systemic reform came from Deng, as what Mao essentially created was a totalist system that was ideologically supported by Confucianism. The system gave the ‘Imperial Chairman’ and the Mandarins the right to rule China, backed by the military support of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

MacFarquhar said that closed within the triangular nature of the system was society, whose behaviour was predetermined by the system. To further this, Deng, impatient with the tardiness of Soviet-style communism, decided to take the ‘great leap forward’; the Cultural Revolution used hard-working labour to transform society and in this way ‘engineered’ China’s largest manmade famines. Mao’s obsession with not wanting to take the party down the Soviet route and his power and position in the party, made him take the dangerous step of encouraging society to attack the party and paralyse it. The Cultural Revolution resulted in the erosion of the party’s power and brought China under the PLA.

Deng had brought about many structural political reforms. He abolished the position of the chairman and created a flatter hierarchy – what MacFarquhar described as a ‘plateaux’ – of second rank individuals on the top. Despite these reforms, his administration lacked an ideological foundation and society began to look outward for other forms of governing China and began resisting the party. Apart from this, Deng did not address the issue of succession and this perpetuated fragility in the system.

MacFarquhar argued that leaders were and continue to be selected on the basis of back-door negotiation. He stated that the fate of Bo Xi Lai’s political career was a narrow escape for Xi Jinping, who also faces corruption charges. The corruption penetrates lower levels of the CCP, which is losing its grip on lower levels, the repercussion of which are seen in confrontations in the South China Sea and so on.

MacFarquhar said that China today needs to find a way of permitting a growing educated population to run the country. By alluding to the recent protests* by journalists from the Southern Weekend (also referred to as the Southern Weekly) in the province of Guangdong, he stated that they represent groups of professionals aspiring to international recognition and respect of their peers. They know they can fulfil these objectives only when given the freedom to present news as it is. The same goes for lawyers who defend cases of dissidence. Hence Xi’s challenge is restore the credibility of the CCP and make China respected in the international community, not only because of its economic success, but also because of what it gives to people.

On 17 January 2013, Prof. Roderick MacFarquhar, Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science, Harvard University gave a talk entitled “China in Transition”. The event was hosted by the school’s Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG) under its S.T Lee Distinguished Annual Lecture Series and chaired by Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean of the School. Professor MacFarquhar’s esteemed profile and topical lecture attracted an auditorium of full of professionals, students and academics.


By Sharinee Jagtiani, a Research Assistant at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG).

Editor’s note: Referring to the dispute surrounding respected Guangdong-based newspaper Southern Weekly. In their annual New Year’s editorial on the front page on 3 January 2013, editors found that the article had been altered by propaganda officials without their knowledge.


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Prof. Roderick MacFarquhar, Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science, Harvard University

Thursday, 17 January 2013
5.15 p.m. - 6.30 p.m.

Auditorium, Level 3
Block B, Faculty of Law
NUS Bukit Timah Campus
469G Bukit Timah Rd
Singapore 259776

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