CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Ruling elites almost everywhere – whether in democracies or in authoritarian regimes – believe that clever sloganeering can inspire their people and legitimize their power. There are, of course, crucial differences. In functioning democracies, government leaders can be held accountable for their promises: the press can scrutinize their policies, opposition parties are motivated to show that the party in power lies and cheats. As a result, incumbents are frequently forced to carry out at least some of their promises.
Autocratic rulers, by contrast, face no such pressures. Press censorship, repression of dissent, and the absence of organized opposition allow rulers the luxury of promising whatever they want, with no political consequences for failing to deliver. The result is government of the sloganeers, by the sloganeers, and for the sloganeers.
China appears to have perfected this form of government over the last decade. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in response to rising public demand for social justice, has devised numerous slogans, such as “governing for the people,” “building a harmonious society,” “balanced development,” “scientific development,” and so on.
Whenever the top leadership in Beijing uttered such slogans, they became the rallying cry of the bureaucracy. The party’s massive propaganda machine went into overdrive and blanketed the country with a publicity blitz that would make the most extravagant Madison Avenue advertising campaign look like child’s play.