Ideological Change and Regime Legitimacy in China

  • In the eyes of most contemporary witnesses, the collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the end of ideology. At least in the case of China, this was a hasty assumption. Over the past two decades, we have observed a reemphasis on party ideology in the People’s Republic. Ideology has again become a key resource for the legitimation of party-state power. The objective of the research project has been to analyze changes in party ideology and assess the implications for the legitimacy of party rule.
    BMBF, 2010-2016


    Dr. Maria Bondes

    Ehemals Associate

    Sandra Heep

    Former Doctoral Researcher

    Prof. Dr. Björn Alpermann

    Julius-Maximilians Universität Würzburg

    Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer

    Institut für Ostasienwissenschaften, Universität Duisburg-Essen

    Prof. Dr. Keping Yu

    Prof. Dr. Josef Gregory Mahoney

    Prof. Dr. Gunter Schubert

    Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen


    Against the backdrop of the increasing emphasis that the CCP has put on ideological adaptation and innovation in recent years, this project analyses the changes in official party ideology and their implications for regime legitimacy. Based on discourse analytical methods and interviews with political and intellectual elites in China, the project explores (a) how ideological change is organised in institutional, personnel and financial terms; (b) which ideological innovations have been made since the 1990s; (c) which positive and negative lessons have been drawn from international experiences; (d) which impacts on regime legitimacy and stability can be detected; and (e) which implications these factors have for future institutional change and political reform in China. Based on interviews among the populace, the second project phase (2015-2016) focuses on the question to which extent the ideological discourses produced by China’s political elites find resonance among the populace and hence contribute to a legitimisation of the party regime.

    Beitrag zu internationaler Forschung

    The explanation of the resilience of non-democratic systems in general and authoritarian China in particular has become one of the major challenges confronting political scientists. In recent years, a growing number of scholars have studied the importance of institutional factors such as elections for the stability of authoritarian regimes. However, since these researchers’ work has to a significant degree been shaped by expectations of democratisation, the political adaptability of authoritarian regimes has so far been neglected in scholarly work. This project thus draws attention to the normative dimension of authoritarian regimes’ legitimacy by examining the role that innovations in official party ideology play in the reproduction of regime legitimacy in China.

    Forschungsdesign und Methoden

    The project explores the above questions using discourse analytical methods and interviews with political and intellectual elites as well as among the populace in China. The analysis of qualitative data is carried out with the software MAXQDA.

    Vorläufige Ergebnisse

    Our research has drawn attention to the fact that the leaders of authoritarian regimes propagate official frames in an effort to reproduce the populace’s belief in the elites’ leadership qualities, and in their determination to serve the common interest. It has also clarified the relationship between official frames and official ideologies, arguing that official ideologies are both more abstract and more comprehensive than official frames and thus function as their theoretical underpinnings. In applying this framework to the case of China, we have shown that the CCP has demonstrated its dedication to the public good by drawing on the guiding ideology of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The main shift in the frames propagated in recent years has been a greater focus on the people’s well-being. This can be understood as a direct response to popular grievances. Through recent English-language publications, the changes in Chinese official discourse since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, when Xi Jinping stepped to power as the new general secretary of the party, have been analysed and their significance in the domestic as well as in the international realm has been illustrated. Moreover, research findings have been introduced to a Chinese academic audience through a lively scholarly exchange with colleagues from the China Center for Comparative Politics & Economics (CCCPE) in Beijing.

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    Chinese Notions on Democracy

    Global Power Shifts and the Future of Democracy: An Evolutionary Approach, with Special Attention to China, GIGA Hamburg, Hamburg Organisation: German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) John Owen (Vortragende:r), Prof. Dr. Heike Holbig (Vortragende:r)

    John Owen


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