, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 25-54

Political Narratives and the Production of Legitimacy: The Case of Corruption in Post-Mao China

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Abstract

China watchers have predicted that corruption would lead to a crisis for the ruling regime. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party has somehow managed to retain and even strengthen its political legitimacy. This article analyzes corruption not as a crime or a political problem but as a topic of political narratives, thereby revealing the political processes which led to this result. This study, based on interviews and archival data, examines narratives on the topic of corruption produced in the post-Mao era by the ruling regime and political dissidents in their struggle to influence the populace's views on political legitimacy. In the 1980s, disgruntled intellectuals drew upon the traditionalist collective narrative of corruption to teach citizens to blame the leadership and the structure of the government for social problems, essentially rewriting the narratives used to assess and judge the regime. In doing so, they successfully threatened the political authority of the Party-state. However, in the 1990s, China's leaders and the official media revised the story of corruption so that the Party-state battled corruption on behalf of its citizens in order to bring them economic opportunities, rising living standards, and social stability. In these new narratives, the role of the state was no longer that of ideological or moral leadership, but of economic management. Through these narratives of economic management, the regime managed to control the corruption crisis and recapture its political legitimacy, but was also forced to deal with the consequences of this new vision of state-society relations.