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TransyPods: Learn You a Thing with Dr. Steve Hess

Learn You a Thing Episode 1: Dr. Steve Hess Explains Chinese Politics

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TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Hi. Welcome to the Learn You a Thing podcast. I’m Rambler editor in chief, Tristan Reynolds. In each episode, I’m going to talk to an expert about their expertise, and by the end of it, we’ll all be smarter. This week, Dr. Steven Hess explains politics in China.


So I’m here with Dr. Steve Hess who is an expert on Chinese politics. And as a mark of respect for that expertise, I’m going to ask you to explain Chinese politics in 30 seconds from a 3,000 foot level.

STEVE HESS: OK. Well, when you’re looking at Chinese politics, you look at the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. You know, the fact that China functioned as a Communist single party state from then until the present. But that doesn’t really tell you the whole story. We’ve seen China really evolve from Maoism from 1949 all the way up to 1976, which you had a totalitarian state, mass campaigns.

People lived and breathed politics. You know, the party was really intrusive and controlled every part of your life up until the late 1970s in which China has maintained that same single party political structure, but has implemented market reforms. And so we still have this same basic political structure in which you have a single party state led by the Chinese Communist Party that has a monopoly on political power.

But the way in which political power is experienced by the average person has really changed because of basic governance changes within China, and then also just the way in which the party has relaxed its controls over the economy and society. And we’ve seen people have a lot more independence in their day to day lives, particularly when it comes to economic decisions and basic life issues.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: So there’s a lot I want dig into there. But I think the first thing is, people hear one party state or single party state, and simplify that down to everybody agrees on everything. Is that a valid interpretation or is that somewhat deceptive?

STEVE HESS: So there’s often this– that’s a really common understanding of China when people are looking at it from the outside. So a lot of times, they say, well, there’s a single party state. You know, it has 85 million members. There’s not competing political parties. So as a result, there’s this monolith that’s out there. You have the party that’s integrated with the state, and there’s really only one source of political power.

And all forms of opposition are suppressed in some way. So there’s this idea that the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping or the people before, has this monopoly of power, and then everybody just follows under that structure. But there are divisions within the party that we’re aware of, factional divisions. The party has a central government. They have provincial governments.

They have local governments, counties, prefectures, et cetera. And all those different pieces of the government have their own particular interests, and they don’t always work together in perfect harmony. So right now, we’re in the middle of this historic anti-corruption campaign, which is mostly targeted to groups. Xi Jinping is emphasizing the Tigers and the Flies.

So the Tigers are the high ranking officials who are his factional rivals. He’s going after them, right? And then there’s also the flies. So these are the low ranking officials who engage in everyday corruption which can a lot of times be really significant. So that’s an example in which the central party leadership is struggling with its ability to maintain control over his own party.

And then there’s also the conflict between the party itself and forces in society that are outside of the party. So we have about 100,000 protests in China a year that usually don’t make the news, but these are usually examples of localized protests in which people are resisting the demolition of their property or the seizure of their property.

There are labor protests related to stolen wages, missing wages, poor treatment from managers. There’s protests against pollution or health risks posed by polluting factories. And so these are communities coming together and challenging the party. And one of the things that I noticed living in China was just that in everyday conversation with people, you see lots and lots of different viewpoints.

And some people are much more supportive of the party. Some people are much more critical. And then even your average Chinese person sees the difference between local officials and their particular interests and the central party leadership. And there is this really diverse set of viewpoints defined by where you stand in the country, in terms of social class or where you stand regionally.

Whether you’re an ethnic minority or a Han Chinese, how much education you have, how much you’ve travel abroad. It’s 1.4 billion people, so you have a lot of different viewpoints that are out there.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: OK. So I wanna zoom in on that daily aspect. One of the things you talked about is this sort of low level, daily corruption. What does that look like?

STEVE HESS: There’s a number of different ways in which corruption manifests itself. There is just general bribe taking and bribe gathering. There’s a lot of low level officials who don’t receive much in the way of a paycheck, so they’re relatively low salary jobs. But by having those positions, one of the things that they do have is a kind of political power and an ability to control events in a way that–

If you don’t have the support of these kinds of officials and you need a license or you need access to public resources, your life can be very difficult. So because of that, a lot of times the salary and the prestige is not high enough that many average talented, motivated people actually want to be officials. So a lot of times, the motivation to become an official is based on the fact that you can use it to take rise.

And so there is this pattern called [CHINESE], which basically means buying and selling offices. And so [CHINESE] is a really corrosive problem within the party, particularly at the lower levels because what’ll happen is you’ll have a person who offers a bribe to an official in order to get an office.

Both people, the person who’s accepted the bribe and the person who’s bribed their way into an office, both know that the other person is engaged in corruption that is technically illegal. So neither of them is now going to actually encourage the enforcement of corruption laws anywhere, right? Because what happens is that when there’s an anti-corruption crackdown, the central government deploys people from the discipline and inspection office.

And they arrest one person. And then as soon as they arrest that person, they start offering them a deal, right? And you can get a reduced sentence in exchange for ratting out all the other people that you’re aware of. And some of them are your co-conspirators in corruption, and other people are just people who engaged in corruption that you just happened to see.

And so one of the things that happens is that once they capture one of these people in a corruption probe, that person then reveals an entire network of other people who are involved. And so you hear about one arrest, and then suddenly, it starts spiraling to the 5, 10, 15, 20. And so you can uncover this entire scope of corruption that’s there. So every day bribe taking is an important part of corruption.

A lot of times, people who have access to government officials, because of their family members or their friends, their acquaintances, they operate with a kind of impunity that they’re above the law. That if they get arrested by the court, if they get in trouble with the legal system, then they can get out of it because they’ll use their connections. So [CHINESE] is the Chinese word for connections.

And if you have connections, then a lot of times you can get out of any kind of problem. So one of the big scandals that’s happened in the last 10, 20 years is that you have these little, they call them princelings. They’re the children of officials, and a lot of them are– they’re in wealth and power because they just happen to be in the right family.

And so there have been cases where they get into car accidents where they’re driving a Ferrari and they’re drunk, and the police pulled them over. But then they say who they are, and they let them go. And you’ve had cases where they’ve assaulted people or they’ve just mistreated people by using their office. So there’s a lot of resentment against that kind of local corruption.

But on the other hand, you said every day corruption. A lot of political scientists have pointed out the fact that, well, China doesn’t really have an effective, independent court system. So one of the ways that you can guarantee that your contract is upheld or the fact that what you’ve agreed to with a business partner is to be upheld based on those connections.

So a lot of times, this kind of low level corruption is the lubricant that enables business transactions to occur. And so some research has suggested that just allowing this low grade level of corruption has actually been conducive to economic activities in China.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: So when the party sets a policy, how, for the man on the street, the metaphorical man on the street, what does that feel like? How does it impact daily life?

STEVE HESS: So a lot of times there’s a big disconnect, like, where the central government will issue a directive. They’ll say, we’ve changed policies in this particular way. We’ve extended new rights to everyday citizens. As it drifts its way down the party hierarchy, a lot of the times the policies become distorted by the time they get to the bottom.

And the way that the average citizen feels and experiences these policies is very dependent on the local officials because running against the idea that China is this monolithic entity, the state itself is really decentralized. So about 80% of spending happens at the local or provincial level, not at the central level.

So while the center controls everything in terms of what the broad strokes policies are going to be and what the procedures of the parties are going to be, the way that things are actually executed are entirely dependent on local officials. And the attitude of the average Chinese citizen is kind of interesting. They tend to have a much more negative and cynical view towards local level officials who they experience day to day.

They see these guys as being corrupt and self-interested and, you know, not taking heed to what is good for the public. Whereas, they see the central government as being much more– giving much more care to what citizens’ everyday lives are like. And you’re kind of building off this whole period in dynastic China. You have this idea that, if only Xi Jinping and the central government knew how terrible it was here, then they would help us, right?

And so one of the patterns that we’ve seen– and there’s a great framework put out by Kevin O’Brien and a couple of different co-authors– but Kevin O’Brien at Harvard has made the case that there’s a pattern called rightful resistance. So basically what happens is that people are continually confronting and challenging the state through demonstrations.

A lot of times, they’ll have a petition that they issue a local official, the local official will reject their petition and won’t help them. As a result, they’ll try to put more pressure on the local official, and the whole point of this is to attract an intervention from higher ranking officials. They want to expose the corruption or the official, you know, malpractice of these local officials.

And they want to broadcast what’s happening here to draw the attention of higher ranking officials who then presumably will put pressure on the local official to give them what they want or even to just formally remove the local officials and replace them with someone who might be helpful. Or to directly give them concessions. So they understand that there’s a hierarchy within the party, and then if they can jump rank and attract the attention of higher ranking officials, they can get help.

And so when they frame their demands against the state, it’s interesting because they frame their demands as being patriotic, loyal citizens to the Chinese Communist Party. So what they do is a lot of times, people challenging the state will say, look, our demands are in tune with what the Central Policy is, and what the Constitution says, and what Xi Jinping said at the conference last week.

And so when they make these local demands, they basically say, you know, we’re in the right and the local official is in the wrong. And by the way, when they’re making these kinds of claims, they go out of their way to use patriotic symbols. So they’re waiving the flag of the Chinese Communist party, they’re talking about which they revere Mao Zedong, and [INAUDIBLE] Ping, and Xi Jinping and everyone else.

And they’re basically saying, we’re loyal citizens who love the Communist Party, and we love the central leadership. But we have this one super corrupt guy in our community who’s ruining it and is being corrupt and being selfish and not taking care of us.

And so that’s where the rightful resistance is because they’re actually confronting the party and challenging the party. But at the same time, they’re making appeals to higher ranking members within the party to actually come help them. And so that’s why they couch it in this patriotic language.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: OK. So you spent a couple years in Chongqing with the American Peace Corps. Did you find yourself navigating this sort of party hierarchy in a similar way?

STEVE HESS: Well, the– so when I was in China, my wife and I were English language faculty members at a teaching college outside of Chongqing. And one of the things that’s interesting about the party is that the party has representation in any kind of organized body in the country.

So if you have a small business and you hire, you know, eight or more employees, then suddenly, the eight employee has to be a Communist Party member whose job is to basically make sure that whatever is happening in that organization is in sync with the party’s directives and that it’s not become the source of opposition to the system.

So in university life, you have– like for example, we were in the foreign language faculty. And in the foreign language faculty, you had two deans. You had a dean whose name was written in black letters, and he was the regular dean. You know, he took care of the courses and dealing with the faculty and the students and all the Academic Affairs.

And then across the hall was the other dean, and his name was in red letters. And so he was red dean, and his job was to basically track and monitor what was happening in the department, including what the guy across the hall was doing to make sure that it was all in tune with the party.

And so he would, you know, as a party member, he would basically go to different party meetings and would issue reports on what was actually happening within the organization he was responsible for. And if there was, like, a problem in that department, then he would be the one who’s liable for it.

So if you had this faculty member who was writing things that were really critical of the party, and if you had, you know, faculty members or students that were involved in protests, right? And he’s the one who ultimately is accountable for it, and he has to figure out how to get them to stop. And if he fails to do that, then he personally gets in trouble and might lose his job.

And so that’s kind of how, you know, everything fits together is that you have the party represented in every little work unit in the country. And you have this one person who is accountable for whether or not that unit is becoming a place that is supporting opposition of the party or not. That’s how we were formally connected, even just teaching English in China, you are, in a way, connected to the party apparatus, in one way or the other.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Did you feel, in some sense, that you are responsible to the party or the party’s political aims?

STEVE HESS: No, I didn’t feel like I responsible to the party. I mean, one of the things was as a foreigner, you can go over there and you can speak your mind much more freely, and that’s actually kind of the expectation that many people have. Like, occasionally, you would have students that would come up to you and ask you what you think about things that are relatively politically sensitive.

And just because you were a foreigner, a lot of times they would think, well, you’re going to have this kind of different perspective on it. And that would be really interesting to them. I would say that at least your views of the party when you live there, you realize that the party is just this ever present part of their political system. It doesn’t control everyone’s minds.

It does– it controls the media, it helps shape the information that is out there. The people really are independent voices who develop their own opinions about everything. So you have this ever present party that’s out there, but you also have just everyday people who have their own ideas and experiences, et cetera. So that part of it, the limits to what the party could do, was somewhat visible.

But also you did see in a lot of ways people that were genuinely patriotic and very proud of how much China has improved and changed over the last three decades. And when they saw that their country was slighted in some way, they would feel it very personally. And, you know, we were there during the run up to the 2008 Olympics. And there were protests in Tibet.

And there were efforts, human rights activists or pro-Tibet activists, to try to grab the torch before it could get to Beijing. And as it traveled through different countries, it kind of became this political incident where there would always be people trying to grab the torch. And when protests broke out in Tibet, many of the Chinese that we talked to were very sensitive about how the outside world was, in their mind, incorrectly portraying what was happening in China.

So I was struck by the fact that even when nobody was watching, you know, a lot of times, people had very heartfelt feelings that the country is being misrepresented in some way. And a lot of times as an outsider looking in, I’d say, well, that’s the party’s propaganda.

They’re trying to, like, mix up what the country is and what the party is because what you want to say is that, well, I love China and Chinese people. I don’t like everything the party does. But the party works very actively to basically say that the two are synonymous. You can’t attack the party and its policies without attacking Chinese people.

And many people take that– many people do fail to see the separation between the two things. They do see that it is very much autonomous. But the party does a lot of political work to try to create it that way. So slight against the party is seen as a slight against everybody in China, the Chinese people, Chinese society, Chinese culture, et cetera.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Dr. Steve Hess, thanks for talking with us.

STEVE HESS: You’re welcome. Anytime.


TRISTAN REYNOLDS: This has been Learn You a Thing podcast. I’m Rambler editor in chief, Kristen Reynolds. Our lead producer is Brandon Trap. Thanks for listening.