The ‘Lucifer effect’ theory of Chinese governance

October 30, 2012

Protesters in Ningbo march against a proposed $9 billion chemical plant. (AFP/Getty Images)

There's been a recurring story out of China lately. It starts with local officials planning some project that infuriates locals – say, a chemical plant, as happened recently in the city of Ningbo. Protests mount, security forces crack down, the story goes national on social media and officials back down, maybe with one of them losing his (almost always his, as women hold few senior positions) job.

Of course, most protests never accomplish this kind of change, and officials still typically get their way, but the number of successful protests seems to be rising. 

Li Chengpeng, a highly influential Chinese blogger and social commentator, posted a caustic essay about the trend on Weibo, China's Twitter, where it's already been reposted a stunning 100,000 times. In it, he pointedly compares the Communist Party's government to a "fallen angel" that assumes its own benevolence and inherently superior understanding of how to govern the world's most populous nation.

Liz Carter of Tea Leaf Nation translates and analyzes Li's essay. Here's her retelling:

At one point in his post, Li describes how locals in one Western city were beaten when they rallied against a planned chemical factory. Li spoke with the local cadre, who “shook his head and sighed, ‘You see, these days, people are so selfish, and they don’t understand science. This project will be good for them too, you know.’” Li ultimately concludes that “the Chinese model for power is too arrogant. The more arrogant it is, the lonelier it becomes.” ... Li believes that a failure to interact lies at the root of the decay of the Chinese Communist Party’s “model.” 

... At play, Li writes, is something called “the Lucifer effect.” He compares the Party government to a fallen angel, “who thought he was always right.” He writes, “Our officials think they represent the truth, that they are fighting a holy war, and that they stand for the interests of the people. In the end, plunder is called development and thieves are called angels.”  

What's compelling about this theory is that it accounts for both the China bulls and the bears; those who believe that the Chinese Communist Party system ultimately works and those who believe it has too many flaws and inherent contradictions.

After all, the Party's firm, top-down, technocratic approach helped lift millions out of poverty, build towering cities out of swamps, and create what is truly one of the world's great economic miracles. But that has required officials to place near-absolute faith in their own ability to make decisions on behalf of millions of their subjects. But government technocrats can be wrong. And the perspective of this moneyed and powerful class might not always make it easy for them to understand the preferences and needs of other sorts of Chinese citizens.

The same technocratic, problem-solving approach and sweeping authority that allowed the Communist Party to accomplish such amazing things may also hamper its ability to, as Li puts it, "listen to the people." Listening to the people isn't just a nice idea; as populations become more middle class, they tend to feel a greater stake in how they're governed and to expect more of a say. They also come to wield actual influence, not just through protests but through business, civil society and social communities. In other words, they cut into some of the Party's near-monopoly on authority, whether government officials seem to recognize it or not. As long as Party officials behave as if they still have sweeping power over Chinese communities, Li seems to argue, the Party will be a well-intentioned "fallen angel" that ignores popular will and cracks down on protesters.

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Max Fisher · October 29, 2012