Springer Nature is making Coronavirus research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Morality, Benevolence, and Responsibility: Regime Legitimacy in China from Past to the Present


Taking an interpretive approach, this study argues that Chinese political tradition plays an important role in the maintenance of regime legitimacy in China today. Contrary to the popular view that the Chinese Communist regime relies primarily on economic performance to sustain its legitimacy, the current regime legitimacy is maintained because of the historically rooted moral bond between the state and society and the societal expectation that the state would be responsible for the wellbeing of the population. The regime legitimacy in China has three overlapping layers: The basic layer is the morality of political elite. The crucial part of the morality is the benevolent governance which specifies that the government has to be compassionate to the people. The central component of a benevolent government is the state responsibility to the welfare of the people. All together, these layers create a moral bond between the state and society. The government will enjoy legitimacy as far as the society expects it to fulfill its end of the deal. This study further argues that the morality-based regime legitimacy in China has to be calibrated within its multi-level power structure. Governments at different levels enjoy different degree of legitimacy and face different degree of challenges. In general, the central government enjoys the most legitimacy and faces the least challenges comparing to the local governments. This multi-level power structure would cushion many regime legitimacy crises.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    世界银行东亚及太平洋地区扶贫与经济管理局, 从贫困地区到贫困人群: 中国扶贫议程的演进—中国贫困和不平等问题评估, 2009年,第iii页.

  2. 2.

    These six measurements are drawn from Muller’s operationalization of regime legitimacy: 1. proud to live under the current political system, 2. obligated to support the current political system, 3. respect political institutions in China today, 4. basic rights are protected, 5. courts are fair, and 6. personal values are the same as government values ([4], p. 23).

  3. 3.

    Wenfang Tang was compelled to write an essay on doing survey research in China in response to the consistent questioning of the reliabilities of the survey data by manuscript reviewers. See his “An Introduction to Survey Research in Urban China,” Issues and Studies, December 2002/March 2003, pp. 269–288.

  4. 4.

    According to various sources and calculations, the collective protest incidents had increased from 8,700 in 1994, to 90,000 in 2006, and to an unconfirmed number of 127,000 in 2008. The figure for 2008 was an “estimate” reported by Jacobs [17]. In another news report, an estimate of 90,000 such incidents annually for 2007, 2008, and 2009 was quoted from a Chinese insider by Garnaut [10].

  5. 5.

    Zhao also listed territorial defense as the third dimension but argued that without a pending threat from other countries, the economic performance and moral conduct therefore become the most important dimensions of legitimacy.

  6. 6.

    “今君身不能自治, 而望治百姓, 是犹曲表而求直影也”《周书》卷二十三, 《列传》第十五

  7. 7.

    It was a quote from Chen Sheng, the leader of the peasant rebellion that overthrew the Qin Dynasty in 209 BC.

  8. 8.

    The basic argument is that, first of all, no Confucian scholars deny the importance of a legal order. In fact, all the Confucian officials had to be an expert of legal codes of their times since they served as judges in Chinese court. Moreover, important Confucian moral prescriptions, such as filial piety, had been incorporated into legal codes.

  9. 9.


  10. 10.

    “为政以德, 譬如北辰, 居其所而众星拱之,”《论语·为政》

  11. 11.

    The Chinese originals are“敦教化,” “从地利,” “濯贤良,”“恤狱讼,” “均徭役.”《周书》卷二十三,《列传》第十五.

  12. 12.

    The case originally appeared in《清朝名吏判牍》[Court Rulings of Famous Officials in Qing Dynasty] and was widely quoted in the study of court rulings in China. The case quoted in this discussion is from 郭伟 (Guo Wei), “浅读古代判词” [preliminary reading of ancient court ruling], (last checked 10/6/09); and 刘素桢 (Liu Suzhen), “中国历代判词语言的法文化现代价值” [The Modern Value of Legal Culture in the Language of Chinese Historical Judgment], (last checked 10/6/09).

  13. 13.

    “夫平均者, 不舍豪强而征贫弱, 不纵奸巧而困愚拙.”《周书》卷二十三,《列传》第十五.

  14. 14.

    “一夫吁嗟, 王道为之倾覆.” ibid.

  15. 15.

    According to one calculation based on purchasing power parity, one tael of silver in Qing dynasty equals to 200RMB. ( last checked on 11/11/2009).

  16. 16.

    The term “Parental officials” (父母官) referred to government officials, the usage of which goes back to as early as the Han Dynasty. This term was replaced by “people’s servant” during Mao’s era and quietly resurfaced after 1978.

  17. 17.

    The common question would be how long a prolonged period is when people lose their expectations of the government. It varies depending on the strength of the government and the scale of the disaster. Toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, for example, peasant rebellion broke out after the famine persisted for more than a decade. Despite the government military campaigns that defeated the rebellious peasants, rebellions repeatedly reemerge because of the lasting famines. In the end, the peasant rebellions overthrew the Ming Dynasty.

  18. 18.

    For example, the national survey on legal awareness conducted by the Research Center for Contemporary China at Peking University in 2003–04 has shown that the popular trust in the central political institutions is much higher than the local ones. See [21].


  1. 1.

    Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

  2. 2.

    Bing Wong, R. 1997. China transformed: Historical change and the limits of European experience, 98. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  3. 3.

    Chang, Gordon. 2001. The coming collapse of China. New York: Random House.

  4. 4.

    Chen, Jie. 2004. Popular political support in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  5. 5.

    China Statistical Bureau, 1995. Report of the damage caused by disaster in China 1949–1995. China Statistical Press.

  6. 6.

    China Statistics Bureau 中国发展报告, 2009. [China Development Report 2009]. China Statistics Press.

  7. 7.

    Connolly, William (ed.). 1984. Legitimacy and the state. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  8. 8.

    Fairbank, John King. 1983. The United States and China, 4th ed. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

  9. 9.

    Fairbank, John King, and Edwin O. Reischauer (eds.). 1979. China: Tradition and transformation, 44. George Allen & Unwin.

  10. 10.

    Garnaut, John. 2010. China insider sees revolution brewing. Sidney Morning Herald (March 2, 2010).

  11. 11.

    Guo, Xiaolin. 2001. Land expropriation and villagers’ complaints in Northeast Yunnan. China Quarterly (166):422–439.

  12. 12.

    Guo, Xuezhi. 2002. The ideal Chinese political leader: A historical and cultural perspective. Praeger.

  13. 13.

    Guying, Chen (陈鼓应), 1984. 韩非子今注今释, 中华书局.

  14. 14.

    Hachigian, Nina. 2002. The Internet and power in one-party East Asian State. Washington Quarterly 25(3): 41–58.

  15. 15.

    Harding, Harry. 1987. China’s second revolution: Reform after Mao. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

  16. 16.

    Ho, Ping-ti. 1962. The ladder of success in imperial China: Aspects of social mobility, 1368–1911. New York: Columbia University Press.

  17. 17.

    Jacobs, Andrew. 2009. Dragons, dancing ones, set-off a riot in China. New York Times (February 10, 2009).

  18. 18.

    Jinqing, Cao (曹锦清), 2000. 黄河边上的中国 [China by the Yellow River]. Shanghai Wenyi Press.

  19. 19.

    Ku, Hok Bun. 2003. Moral politics in a South Chinese village: Responsibility, reciprocity, and resistance. Lanham, MA: Roman & Littlefield.

  20. 20.

    Landry, Pierre. 2008. Decentralized authoritarianism in China: The communist party’s control of local elites in the Post-Mao era. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  21. 21.

    Landry, Pierre. 2009. Does the communist party help strengthen China’s legal reform? The China Review 9(1): 45–71.

  22. 22.

    Lieberthal, Kenneth, and Michael Oksenberg. 1988. Policy making in China: Leaders, structures, and processes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  23. 23.

    Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1981. Political man: The social bases of politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  24. 24.

    Lowenthal, Richard. 1976. The ruling party in a mature society. In Social consequences of modernization in communist societies, ed. Mark Field, 81–118. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

  25. 25.

    Oi, Jean. 1999. Two decades of rural reform in China: An overview and assessment. China Quarterly (159):616–628.

  26. 26.

    Perry, Elizabeth. 2008. Chinese conceptions of “Rights”: From Mencius to Mao—and now. Perspectives on Politics 6(1): 37–50.

  27. 27.

    Perry, Elizabeth, and Mark Selden (eds.). 2003. Chinese society: Change, conflict and resistance, 2nd ed, 8. London: Routledge.

  28. 28.

    Pye, Lucian. 1985. Asian power and politics: The cultural dimensions of authority, 23. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

  29. 29.

    Rigby, T.H., and Ferenc Feher. 1982. Political legitimation of communist states. Palgrave Macmillan.

  30. 30.

    Scott, James. 1976. The moral economy of the peasant: Rebellion and subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  31. 31.

    Shambaugh, David. 2008. China’s community party: Atrophy and adaptation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  32. 32.

    Shi, Tianjian. 1997. Political participation in Beijing. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

  33. 33.

    Shirk, Susan. 1993. The political logic of economic reform in China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  34. 34.

    Shue, Vivienne. 2010. Legitimacy crisis in China? In Chinese politics: State, society and the market, ed. Peter Hays Gries and Stanley Rosen, 41–68. London: Routledge.

  35. 35.

    Studwell, Joe. 2003. The China dream: The quest for the last great untapped market on earth. Grove Press.

  36. 36.

    Tang, Wenfang. 2005. Public opinion and political change in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  37. 37.

    Tong, Yanqi. 1997. Transition from state socialism: Economic and political change in Hungary and China. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.

  38. 38.

    Tongzu, Qu (瞿同祖), 1981. 中国法律与中国社会 [Chinese Law and Chinese Society], 中华书局. Chinese Book Bureau.

  39. 39.

    Weber, Max. 1984. Legitimacy, politics and the state. In Legitimacy and the state, ed. William Connolly, 32–62. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  40. 40.

    White, Stephen. 1986. Economic performance and communist legitimacy. World Politics 38(3): 462–482.

  41. 41.

    Xiaoguang, Kang (康晓光), 2005. 仁政: 中国政治发展的第三条道路 [Benevolence: The third way of Chinese political development]. Singapore: Bafang Wenhua Press.

  42. 42.

    Yongnian, Zheng. 2007. De facto federalism in China: Reforms and dynamics of central-local relations. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

  43. 43.

    Yunte, Deng (邓云特), 1998. 中国救荒史 [History of Disaster Relief in China], 北京出版社.

  44. 44.

    Zehou, Li (李泽厚), 1986. 中国古代思想史论 [Essays on Classical Chinese Philosophy], 北京: 人民出版社.

  45. 45.

    Zhao, Dingxin. 2001. The power of Tiananmen: State-society relations and the 1989 Beijing student movement, 23. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

  46. 46.

    Zheng, Yongnian. 2010. The Chinese communist party as organizational emperor: Culture, reproduction and transformation. London: Routledge.

  47. 47.

    Zheng, Chuxuan. 1995. A comparison between Western and Chinese political ideas: The difference and complementarity of the liberal-democratic and moral-despotic traditions, 338 and 340. Mellen University Press.

  48. 48.

    Zhiping, Liang (梁治平), 1992. 法辨: 中国法的过去,现在与未来. Explicating law: The past, present, and future of law in China, 116, 贵州人民出版社.

Download references


The main part of this study is derived from a chapter of my book on social protest to be published by the Routledge Press. I would like to thank Harry Harding and Howard Lehman for their invaluable comments. I would also like to thank the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore for providing me a research fellowship during which the research was conducted.

Author information

Correspondence to Yanqi Tong.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Tong, Y. Morality, Benevolence, and Responsibility: Regime Legitimacy in China from Past to the Present. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 16, 141–159 (2011).

Download citation


  • Morality
  • Benevolence
  • Responsibility
  • Regime Legitimacy
  • China