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“Performance Legitimacy” and China’s Political Adaptation Strategy


The CCP government has adopted a very pragmatic strategy of “performance legitimacy” since China began its reform. It means that the government relies on accomplishing concrete goals such as economic growth, social stability, strengthening national power, and “good governance” (governing competence and accountability) to retain its legitimacy. While it is able to attain considerable domestic support by implementing this strategy, it has no particular interest in pursuing democratization. This chapter tries to make sense of the main reasons why it has adopted this strategy and to evaluate the political and social outcome of its policies. The chapter intends to discover if China’s adaptation strategy is a “path dependent” decision, and if it will function as a potential catalyst for significant political change in the future. The chapter also explores what the Chinese government has achieved through its adaptation strategy and what and why it has been unwilling or unable to do to obtain an “original justification” of power. Zhu skillfully travels back and forth between the terrains of theory and practice to make better sense of legitimacy and governance in China’s experiences.

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  1. Some scholars do not prefer this concept, e.g., Bruce Gilley argues that as legitimacy is “a particular type of political support that is grounded in common good or shared moral evaluations,” that concepts like performance legitimacy “are either oxymorons or redundant.”[8]

  2. For example, as Huntington argued in The Third Wave- Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century [14], a country with per capita GDP $1000–3000 is probably at a threshold point of democratization; but China has already passed this threshold without any sign of democratization. In terms of this “economic threshold” for democracy, also see, Li [17]; Haggard and Kaufman [11]; Przeworski et al [23].

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  6. But this does not mean that China cannot accept modern concepts like liberty and democracy. Taiwan’s democracy is a successful example in a typical Chinese community.

  7. Baogang Guo provided a very comprehensive description of this: “[t]he Chinese cognitive pattern of political legitimacy can be described as follows: a ruler, who has the mandate from heaven, possesses the quality of virtue, shows respect to his subjects, follows the rules of the ancestors, and tries to win the hearts and minds of the people, will be considered a just and legitimate one. A just ruler will strengthen his legitimacy by promoting policies that will benefit the people, not himself, by ensuring relatively equal distribution of these benefits, and by allowing the people to do what they do the best. This unique cognitive model has influenced every Chinese government and its rulers throughout history. By carefully observing these norms, a ruler, feudal or modern, can be assured of public support and accepted as legitimate.” ([10], p.154).

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Correspondence to Yuchao Zhu.

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Zhu, Y. “Performance Legitimacy” and China’s Political Adaptation Strategy. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 16, 123–140 (2011).

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  • Legitimacy
  • Governance
  • Adaptation
  • Accountability
  • Path-dependence