A Response to ‘China’s Foreign Policy Isn’t Transparent? You’ve Got to Be Kidding’

Following is a response by Susan Shirk to “China’s Foreign Policy Isn’t Transparent? You’ve Got to Be Kidding,” an essay written by Chu Yin in response to Shirk’s earlier piece, “What China’s Lack of Transparency Means for U.S. Policy.” —The Editors

I’m pleased that my article on the lack of transparency in China’s political system has stimulated this intellectually interesting commentary from Chu Yin.

Chu elaborates my argument that China’s leaders keep the policy process secret because they are afraid of revealing differences among themselves to the public. The system is too fragile to allow citizens access to information about how policies are made. As he explains, “information is tightly controlled in an effort not to give the public the impression that the Party is divided on any issue.” He confirms that the reality contradicts this manufactured image of elite unity. There are sharp disagreements within the Party and the government. But, Chu says, “public disagreements on policy issues can undermine the Party’s authority and cohesiveness, and technical debates can easily evolve into ideological struggles.” In other words, because C.C.P. rule is prone to leadership splits and has no institutionalized mechanism for resolving them, secrecy is required for Party rule to survive.

Chu goes on to contrast the risks of transparency during two different periods of time: the 1979-2012 period when the Communist Party stepped back and delegated more authority over policymaking to the government; and the Xi Jinping era when the C.C.P. has “made itself the main force responsible for policy making and implementation.” In the earlier period, the “the Party’s diminished clout” led to what he labels “regionalist and sectarian forces” that threatened the system’s fragile unity. Presumably what he means is that different provinces and bureaucratic agencies competed for economic policies that would most benefit them, a normal feature of public administration in most other countries.

Today, however, now that the Communist Party under Xi Jinping tries to manage policy by itself, “issues of administration,” which normally belong to the government, and “issues of ideology,” which normally belong to political parties, have become intertwined. As a result, Chu Yin says, policy debates have become imbued with a political significance that goes beyond administration, “even raising them to the level of intensely ideological disputes over the ‘Party line.’” Therefore, he argues, if the policymaking process were to become more public, it could “easily evolve into publicizing internal Party disputes.” Moreover, the Party’s conservatives who “command the ideological heights” (presumably through powerful bodies like the propaganda and security agencies) will “suppress the pragmatic reformists and reforms will consequently lose ground.” In other words, Chu argues that if you support reforms you should support keeping the policymaking process secret from the public.

Chu’s commentary supports my view that the lack of transparency about policymaking reflects the fragility of the Chinese political system. Chinese leaders believe that only by presenting a façade of unanimity at the top can they prevent élite conflicts from spilling out and mobilizing public opposition.

Chu’s final point about China’s lack of willingness to be transparent on foreign and security policy because it is weaker compared with the U.S. is a more conventional and less interesting argument that I won’t address here.

No doubt, he has provided yet another rationale for why China’s political system remains secretive, but my argument was that too much secrecy, even in the area of foreign and security policy, hurts a country’s relations with the outside world. One does not have to look too far to find how North Korea’s secrecy has hurt its relations with the rest of the world.

Two Way Street


China’s Foreign Policy Isn’t Transparent? You’ve Got to Be Kidding

Chu Yin from Two Way Street
In her recent article, “What China’s Lack of Transparency Means for U.S. Policy,” U.S.-China relations expert Susan Shirk caused a stir when she argued that China’s “lack of transparency” around public policy making, defense, national security, and...