Professor Gong-Qin Xiao of the Shanghai Normal University presented a Carnegie luncheon on May 14, 2002, entitled "The Marginalization of Liberals and Conservatives and its Impact on Chinese Politics." He summarized his latest research and explored how the political situation in China may influence the prospects for democratization. Professor Xiao began by stressing the continued importance of the clash between "liberals" and "conservatives" in China. He emphasized that this ideological conflict is not unique. Reform in "socialist-totalitarian" states involves liberal factions, which in turn trigger a conservative backlash. Consequently, liberal-conservative conflict is necessarily a feature of reform in socialist regimes.
Xiao defined "liberals" as intellectuals with a Western orientation, college students, democrats within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and moderate "progressives" at the political center. Liberals focus on democracy, freedom, and individual rights. Economically they emphasize opening China's markets and socially they stress the need for greater civil society. These demands are rooted in a broad domestic and international power base. Domestically, liberals control the "power of political discourse," and their general outlook resonates with citizens holding antagonism towards the old system. Internationally, they have gained support for their reformist stance. Xiao defined "conservatives" as political elements that retain a fundamentalist interpretation of Marxist ideology. Their antagonism to liberal reform stems from ideological nostalgia, a refusal to "betray Marxism," and vested interests in the old system. To defend against reform they draw from three sources of power: The power to interpret official ideology; close relations with the older revolutionary generation; and the ability to interpret liberal challenges as unlawful threats to the CCP.
Professor Xiao stressed that both liberals and conservatives maintain "independent power resources." Liberals represent a force that will "deconstruct" the system. Conservatives represent a force that will "reintegrate" the system. He outlined four logical outcomes to the conflict:
1) Liberals overwhelm conservatives and engineer a democratic transition.
2) Conservatives defeat the liberals and rollback reform.
3) Liberals and conservatives attain stable equilibrium and operate in a system that offers both a role in decision-making.
4) Both factions are marginalized within the political process, with neither side exerting political influence. Xiao emphasized that this has been the situation for liberals since 1989 and for conservatives since Deng Xiao-Ping's Southern Tour in 1992. This ideological marginalization currently describes the political situation in China.
Xiao next developed a historical model that illustrated the volatility of ideology during the 1990s. The ideological flux of the 1980s accelerated into the 1986 "Spiritual Pollution Campaigns" and the 1989 Tiananmen incident. But after June 4th 1989, large-scale ideological conflict subsided and the "politics of polarization" were over by the early 1990s. Xiao stressed that one must understand Deng Xiaoping as leader of the political center to understand this change. Deng used liberal leaders as political proxies. Serving as "second echelon actors," liberals were free to support reform. When Deng supported these policies he would throw his support behind these "sub-center" actors, in particular Zhao Zi-Yang. However, these liberal intellectuals were not actually controlled by "the center." Conservatives interpreted their actions as threats to the CCP and the state. A political struggle ensued, and when conservatives framed liberal reforms as threats to the CCP, party elders supported the conservatives. Direct challenges from liberals resulted in a hard-line response that increased over time.These circumstances were ideal for producing extremely polarized politics.
Professor Xiao described June 4th as the tragic outcome of the conflict between two political poles. The 1990s were very different. Liberals were purged, marginalized, and then replaced by technocrats, while conservatives obtained temporary power on a platform of anti-liberalism combined with political alliances with elders. In fact, it was the technocrats that were the direct beneficiaries of the polarized politics of the 1980s. Professor Xiao emphasized that Deng's southern tour in 1992-and subsequent changes in Chinese society-must be understood in this context. The most important outcome was Deng's rhetorical attack on conservatives. This began a process that eventually led to the decline of the conservatives. Their connections with party elders began to disappear, and secularization led to a loss of their ideological weapons.
Xiao also stressed the role that societal changes played in ending political polarization. By the 1990s reform had begun to produce a middle class. Technocrats, intellectuals, and the media were beginning to exert significant influence. Professor Xiao classified these groups as centrist because they disagreed with both liberals and conservatives. Professor Xiao ended his historical analysis by noting that since June 4th we have seen the marginalization of liberals and conservatives and a new centrist force has become the political base. Looking at the history of Chinese politics, this outcome itself is a very unique.
In general the movement toward an ideological center has many positive effects. On the positive side, it prevented a social explosion, a condition that is most likely to occur within transition countries because they share a "revolutionary mobilization" culture and are rife with ideological conflict. Without this ideological polarization policymakers have more flexibility and can work without ideological constraints. Professor Xiao noted that with the end of polarized politics, Neo-authoritarianism has arrived in China. The essence of Neo-authoritarianism is a lack of ideological constraint. He described the current situation as "neo-authoritarian" politics with "post-totalitarian characteristics."
But Xiao stressed that this does not mean China is further from developing democratic politics. Instead, the current situation may help create the preconditions for political reform. Economic development has already created social pluralism and interest groups. This will eventually lead to political "bargaining" within the political system, instead of ideological battle. In fact, a secular society can serve as basis for democracy-bargaining offers a "locus for reform." In contrast, ideological conflict forces rulers to return to "hardened" positions.