What is going wrong in China? Why does General Secretary Xi Jinping appear to be retreating from market economics, with more robust government intervention in the economy? Why the shift from civil society, with more limitations on nongovernmental organizations and restrictions on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members? Why is its foreign policy more assertive, most recently in its embrace of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Perhaps most importantly, what about domestic legitimacy and stability? The unwritten social contract between the CCP and the general population since Deng Xiaoping has been: We will provide you with economic prosperity and increasing latitude in your personal life. You will leave the matters of governance to us. This simple formula held for a number of decades, always with nuances and adjustments, such as less tolerance under Xi for religious expression but regularized acceptance of protests against local government decisions. But over the last twelve months, this contract has been called into question, most recently by the economic slowdown in the second quarter (with China’s GDP falling 2.6 percent over Q1).
Beyond the slowing economy, China’s zero-tolerance COVID policy has challenged the wisdom as well as the competency of government officials.
And so has the crackdown on technology companies—a reminder that Leninism requires a monopoly in which all sources of power and privilege are arrogated to the party. When a China tech taipan, or private equity boss, or even a regional manager for Starbucks purchases a luxury condo in Shanghai and another one in San Francisco and takes his family to Canada for the summer and starts discussing his life in ways that any Silicon Valley person might—this is a challenge to that monopoly and cannot be tolerated. Such a display of wealth might be merely boorish in the West; in China it is an affront.
The economic slowdown, COVID, and the technology policy moves will have longer-term implications for companies rebalancing global production, for venture capital firms seeking investments, and even for couples thinking about starting a family. After several decades of getting it “right,” why does China now seem to insist on getting it “wrong?”
The CCP approach to government is so alien to the Western tradition, and dictatorships are so commonly associated with failed states from Haiti to North Korea, that a single-party system meets with widespread, almost universal, scorn in the United States and elsewhere. And so, from the Western point of view, because it lacks legitimacy it must be kept in power via nationalist cheerleading, government media control, and a massive repressive apparatus.
There is a strong basis for all of these criticisms, but what if there were more to it than that? What if a segment of the population actually supported, or at least tolerated, the CCP? And even if that segment involved both myth and fact, it behooves the CCP to keep the myth alive.
How does the CCP garner popular support in an information era? How does a dictatorship explain to its population that its unchallenged rule is wise, just, and socially beneficial? The historical tools used to generate support such as mass rallies and large-scale hectoring no longer work with a more educated and communications-oriented citizenry.
So let me invite you to watch the television series Renmin de Mingyi (“In the Name of the People”), publicly available with English subtitles.
In the Name of the People is a primetime drama about a local prosecutor’s efforts to root out corruption in a modern-day, though fictional, Chinese city. Beyond the anti-corruption narrative, the series also goes into local CCP politics as some of the leaders are (you guessed it) corrupt and others are simply bureaucratic time-servers, guarding their own privileges and status without actually helping the people they purport to serve.
In addition to the core anti-corruption message, the series boasts one of Xi’s other main themes, “common prosperity,” a somewhat elastic term that usually means the benefits of prosperity should be shared throughout all segments of society. This is a reassuring message to those in the middle and working class, who might only be indirectly benefiting from China’s years of sustained economic growth. It is also a nice way of side-stepping Marxism and class warfare without explicitly repudiating it.
All of this takes place against a backdrop of family and social developments in which we can explore household dynamics, dating habits, and professional aspirations—all within social norms for those honest party members and seemingly violated by those who are not so honest. So we see government officials pondering if they can ever find a date (being the workaholics that they are), or discussing housework with their spouses, or sharing kitchen duties, or reviewing school work with their child.
Many of the episodes draw on or parallel real-life events. There is a Bo Xilai doppelgänger, the dissolute and greedy son of a Long-Marcher, who trades on his family heritage to push a shady real estate deal and there are other stock figures, virtuous or nefarious.
But the central themes are quite clear: The party has brought historical prosperity to the community and there are a few bad apples who are unfairly trying to benefit from this wealth. There are also various sluggards and mediocrities who have no capacity for improvement or sense of public responsibilities.
The degree to which the television series criticized party officials was unprecedented, so much so that we must assume it reflected genuine discontent in the general public. In one episode, one government official says to another, “In the past, the public didn’t believe that the government could do bad; now they don’t believe the government could do good.” At another point a retired official paraphrases Mao and opines, “To serve the party, serve the people, that’s why we become officials.” He is immediately rebutted by his wife who states, “Please. If others hear you say this, they will laugh to death. Who will believe you?” One plot line that lasts for several episodes involves a (CCP) union leader who joins a wildcat strike to defy local authorities trying to demolish a factory.
But fear not: The show makes clear that the vast majority of party members and government officials are dedicated souls who work to improve peoples’ lives. And in the end, virtue triumphs, the party triumphs, China triumphs, and most (not all) of the personal issues are resolved as well. It looks like that conscientious but somewhat shy police officer just might ask the female prosecutor on a date.
In the world of In the Name of the People, the CCP is not only a worthy guardian of the common good, it also has a distinguished heritage, with several elder members having risked their lives on dangerous missions against the Japanese. The show’s version of the CCP eagerly and uncynically supports Chinese culture: The same union leader from the wildcat strike also writes and publishes poetry. Calligraphy is as prized as specialty teas. And all of this is told in a lively style, similar to the Hollywood fare Americans might watch.
Interestingly, In the Name of the People is a China-only story. Locations outside of China do not drive the narrative. A corrupt official might engage a foreign prostitute or flee to the United States, or a daughter might pursue graduate studies there, but the plot is wholly Chinese.
In the Name of the People was first broadcast in 2017 as a lead-up to the last Communist Party Congress, China’s most important decision-making gathering, held every five years. The show’s launch was a huge hit, achieving the highest broadcast ratings of any show in a decade. Within a month, the first episode had been seen over 350 million times and just one of the streaming platforms, iQIYI, reported a total of 5.9 billion views for the show’s 55 episodes. That’s audience traction.
All of this must come as good news for the prosecutors featured so favorably in the series—for their real-life parent government body, the Supreme People’s Protectorate, commissioned and provided financing for the show. The Supreme People’s Protectorate has already released a similar follow-on series Tu Wei (The People’s Property), also publicly available with English subtitles. Less ambitious, with only 45 episodes, it covers much of the same ground as In the Name of the People, with similar themes, plots, and characters.
We are due for another Party Congress this year, which promises to be similar to the last one in serving as a management and communication tool for Xi to reinforce his rule. The main difference over these past five years is that this will be Xi’s effort to secure a third five-year term. And there is still the matter of the social contract being under pressure, as growth has slowed and unhappiness is up, if you look at social media. So no one should be surprised if we see a launch of a similar anti-corruption blockbuster series before the Congress commences.
At a minimum, these shows illustrate a stronger self-awareness in the CCP and considerable improvement in communication strategy. China seems to be avoiding the trap many dictatorships fall into that communicate perfection in leadership and adherence to rote chants (North Korea, anyone?). Instead of self-serving sloganeering—think “We all Support the Five-Year Plan!”—we have something closer to real-world situations and dilemmas. Instead of the CCP claiming perfection, the party is depicted with all of the strengths and weaknesses of humankind—although the strengths are in abundance.
Using a reasonably sophisticated production and putting some CCP faults front and center is not a bad way to start a conversation. Most important, it provides direction to current party members. Indeed, in some cities viewing was made obligatory and the basis for “study sessions” for party cadres. Second, the enormous public success of the series and acknowledging deficiencies of the party allows the party to control the criticism without ever addressing the fundamental question of whether a one-party system is intrinsically susceptible to corruption or poor performance. Individual behavior is criticized but policy decisions or party legitimacy are never challenged. As communication specialists like to say, There is already a conversation taking place about your brand—the only question is whether you will lead the conversation. The CCP is leading in its communications strategy and making it as easy as possible for Chinese citizens to support Xi.
For the moment, at least, In the Name of the People serves as Xi’s favorite television show. He has captured any debate about the party and he has captured a mammoth audience as well. It is difficult to measure to what extent the support garnered through this program over the last five years might offset the dislocations of the past twelve months. But it is not difficult to see that in this area, as in many others, China is breaking with tactics from the past and is playing its cards increasingly well. Whether the CCP can renew itself, reestablish that social contract, and live up to its television image is another question.