Performance Legitimacy: An Unstable Model for Sustaining Power

When I was in China last year, I was surprised to find so many people who were openly critical of China’s policies.  Yet despite such opposition, the government has maintained its hold on power.  Certainly, many American citizens criticize the tax codes, gun laws, or foreign relations policies of the government.  But rarely do they question how the government maintains its power.  What accounts for this difference?  Why, as an American, did I question how the Chinese government sustains power?  Although at times I may disagree with American policies, at a fundamental level, I embrace what America stands for: freedom and opportunity.  Even as the U.S. struggles through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I believe that our democratic system will chart a path out of this disaster.  Call it blind faith, ideological hubris, pure foolishness — it transcends our current state of affairs.  The people’s belief in the country and its foundational ideals forms the bedrock of the American government’s power.  One can only wonder if that belief can still exist in a society that consistently represses free thought and action.

Since the 1980s, China has relied on “performance legitimacy,” a model for sustaining power that entails consistently accomplishing concrete goals to justify its rule.[1]  These goals include economic growth, social stability, governing competence, and accountability.[2]  Performance legitimacy is fundamentally different from “ideological legitimacy,” a model for maintaining power that is based on a common ideology.  Although one could argue that performance legitimacy itself is an ideology, for all intents and purposes of this article, ideology and ideological legitimacy will refer to the body of ideas and ideals that reflect the collective social needs and aspirations of the people.  Similarly, “moral legitimacy” is a regime legitimation approach grounded in shared ethics.  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have to complement its performance legitimacy with moral and ideological legitimacy if it is to sustain its power into the future.  Though the past 30 years suggest otherwise, performance legitimacy is inherently a flawed model for retaining power because consistently delivering on concrete goals is unsustainable.  Moreover, in the absence of moral or ideological justifications of rule, performance legitimacy is insufficient for maintaining power.

It is important to first address the origins of performance legitimacy.  According to Yuchao Zhu, Professor of Political Science at the University of Regina, the CCP derived its original justification of power from two sources: the Chinese citizenry’s consent to revolutionary dialogue and Marxist ideology.[3]  However, after Mao’s rule, these two sources of legitimacy faltered, and the CCP adopted a new regime legitimation approach based on performance.[4]  To this day, the CCP’s main goal is not to regain an original justification of rule but to retain its legitimacy.[5]  Therefore, the CCP must convince its people that its governmental action is sufficient, appropriate, and beneficial.[6]  Western scholars, such as Zhu, use performance legitimacy to explain regime legitimation.  However, from a conventional Western perspective, a government that relies solely on performance legitimacy and lacks civil liberties, universal elections, or political participation does not have political legitimacy.[7]  Thus, performance legitimacy is a concept unique to China and other Eastern countries.

Surely, the CCP’s hold on power for the past three decades suggests that performance legitimacy is a workable model for justifying rule.  However, China’s economic growth of the past 30 years was unprecedented in magnitude and duration, as the country averaged 10% growth annually.[8]  Thus, the effectiveness of China’s performance legitimacy model was perhaps augmented in ways that normal economic growth would not make possible.  Therefore, looking into a future in which China expects high, but more ordinary growth rates, performance legitimacy will inherently be a less effective method of justifying power.  Moreover, accustomed to rapid economic progress, Chinese citizens will take growth for granted, reducing the effectiveness of performance legitimacy and elevating the importance of alternative justifications of power.

Performance-based legitimation is also unstable because the government must reach ever-higher benchmarks of performance to maintain its rule.  Improvements in official accountability, a key tenet of performance legitimacy, can actually make future legitimacy harder to achieve.[9]  Specifically, by increasing transparency and accountability, the Chinese government makes its mistakes more noticeable to the Chinese citizenry.  Thus, China’s achievements are increasingly at risk of being overshadowed by even minor missteps.[10]  In this way, as transparency is increased, China’s achievements produce “diminishing marginal gains” to its performance legitimacy.  In other words, over time it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain performance legitimacy.  The Chinese government must constantly re-legitimate its rule, as achievements and setbacks keep its performance legitimacy in fluctuation.  Therefore, sole reliance on performance legitimacy is unstable because it progressively becomes a less effective method of maintaining power.

Overreliance on performance legitimacy is also unstable because when a government fails to deliver on its promises, it loses its only source of legitimacy.  As University of Chicago Professor of Sociology, Dingxin Zhao, writes, performance legitimacy is “intrinsically unstable because it carries concrete promises and therefore will trigger immediate political crisis when the promises are unfulfilled.”[11]  As mentioned, by improving the quality of life of its citizens through rapid economic growth, the Chinese government demonstrated to its people that it is fit to lead.  If China’s economic miracle were to suddenly end, its performance legitimacy would be undermined, and the country could find itself in a legitimacy crisis.  Although it would be unfair to say that China is solely reliant on performance legitimacy, the country stands on shaky ideological footing, as most citizens no longer believe in Communism.[12]  Moreover, the government possesses weak moral grounds to rule, as corruption is rampant and Chinese citizens are well aware of it (recent revelations of the immense wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao’s family is a prime example).[13]  Thus, if China’s economic growth were to cease, the country would lack other forms of political justification to compensate for a decline in performance legitimacy.  As a result, Chinese citizens might withdraw support of such a government lacking ideological and moral grounds to rule.

Some may argue that performance legitimacy alone has enabled the CCP to maintain its rule for the past thirty years; improvements to governing accountability bolstered China’s performance legitimacy and allowed it to sustain power.  Surely, the Chinese government has made great strides toward comprehensive governing accountability, as bureaucratic administration has become more “institutionalized, regulated, and disciplined.”[14]  However, a system that lacks moral grounds to rule inherently can never fully deliver on governing accountability.  Thus, a government cannot maximize its performance legitimacy unless it possesses a moral justification to rule.  For example, China’s government is not morally justifiable because corruption is rampant and even shows signs of worsening.[15]  If a government were held fully accountable for its actions, its officials could not get away with actions such as misusing public funds and amassing vast private wealth.  However, as corruption is rampant in China, the government obviously does not possess governing accountability.  Thus, a lack of moral justification to rule indirectly weakens a government’s performance legitimacy by undermining its governing accountability.  By contrast, moral legitimacy is a prerequisite of full governing accountability.  Therefore, a regime that intertwines both moral and performance legitimacy is inherently more stable than one that is not morally justified.

Moreover, a lack of ideological agreement between citizen and state necessarily reduces one’s quality of life.  Since people naturally favor a system in which their quality of life is maximized, a system that relies on performance legitimacy and neglects moral and ideological legitimacy is not as stable as one that intertwines both forms of legitimacy.  Performance legitimacy takes into account some aspects of quality of life: economic well-being, social stability, governing competence, and accountability.  However, quality of life also intrinsically entails concomitant ideology, ethics, and morality.  For example, Chinese citizens do not possess freedom of expression, and the government censors material that could subvert the Communist regime.  When I was in China, many of my college friends openly criticized the CCP’s censorship of the Internet.  Others were less vocal, but nonetheless shared a desire to be able to freely express themselves, both in person and online.  Forbidding freedom of expression reduces one’s quality of life because by restricting expression, the government takes something of value from its citizens.  Similar arguments could be extended to a just legal system, or an upright leadership.  Thus, a regime that possesses performance legitimacy in addition to moral and ideological legitimacy is more stable than one that is solely reliant on consistent performance.

Chinese politics under Mao’s rule evince that a regime can justify its rule solely through ideology, much like China has done with performance legitimacy in the past 30 years.  It has been shown that performance legitimacy alone can be an insufficient model for sustaining power, suggesting that in terms of relative effectiveness, ideological legitimacy can be an equally, if not more, effective model for power legitimation.  Zhao writes that the CCP maintained a “high level” of legitimacy under Mao’s rule, even though his programs brought economic disaster to the Chinese people.[16]  The people were willing to follow the party line at the expense of their own well-being and believed that the tragedies endured during the Cultural Revolution were necessary costs on the path to a better future.[17]  The famines and economic turmoil caused by Mao’s policies severely weakened the CCP’s performance legitimacy; in fact, it could be argued that despite delivering on social stability, the CCP lost every last vestige of its performance legitimacy.  Thus, Mao sustained a “high level” of legitimacy through ideology alone.  Mao’s successful use of ideology to justify rule suggests that ideology can be a dominating determinant of a regime’s ability to maintain power.  China’s current regime, then, may not be in a stable situation, since it relies almost fully on performance legitimacy and lacks ideological legitimacy.

A performance-based model for sustaining power is inherently unstable if uncoupled from other forms of legitimacy, such as moral or ideological legitimacy.  Conversely, a regime that intertwines performance legitimacy with moral and ideological legitimacy is intrinsically more stable than one that lacks these alternative forms of power justification.  However, for the past 30 years, the CCP has been very reliant on performance legitimacy and has still managed to maintain its rule.  Even so, the rise of civil protests in recent years and the growing role of social networking in political activism forebode a future in which China’s performance-based model may one day falter.  Although history suggests that performance legitimacy will be enough for China to maintain its hold on power, there are growing threats to performance itself, such as environmental damage.  What is clear is that China will have to navigate through these challenges to its performance.  However, it remains unclear whether China will undergo reforms that bolster its ideological and moral legitimacy.



Works Cited

Barboza, David. “Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader.” New York Times, October 25, 2012.

“China’s GDP growth slides to 7.4%.” Last modified October 17, 2012.

Economy, Elizabeth C. 2007. “The Great Leap Backward?” Foreign Affairs 86 (5): 38-59.

Jacobs, Andrew. “Protests Over Chemical Plant Force Chinese Officials to Back Down.” The New York Times, October 29, 2012.

Jiangtao, Shi. “Why fume now at U.S. over air data?” South China Morning Post, June 21, 2012. Lexis-Nexus.

Lin, Li-Wen. 2010. “Corporate Social Responsibility in China: Window Dressing Or Structural Change?” Berkeley Journal of International Law 28 (1): 64-100.

Zhao, D. X. 2009. “The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China.” American Behavorial Scientist Vol. 53.

Zhu, Yuchao. “‘Performance Legitimacy’ and China’s Political Adaptation Strategy.” In Reviving Legitimacy, edited by Deng Zhenglai and Sujian Guo, 175–94. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011.


[1] Yuchao Zhu, “‘Performance Legitimacy’ and China’s Political Adaptation Strategy,” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2011): 123, accessed October 20, 2012. EBESCO.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid,, 125.

[4] Ibid., 126.

[5] Ibid., 130.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Ibid., 125.

[8] “China’s GDP growth slides to 7.4%,” last modified October 17, 2012,

[9] Yuchao Zhu, “‘Performance Legitimacy’ and China’s Political Adaptation Strategy,” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2011): 134, accessed October 20, 2012. EBESCO.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dingxin Zhao, “The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China,” American Behavorial Scientist (2009): 428, accessed October 20, 2012.

[12] Dingxin Zhao, “The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China,” American Behavorial Scientist (2009): 428, accessed October 20, 2012. Zhao writes that by the mid-1980s, most urban Chinese no longer believed in communism.

[13] David Barboza, “Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader,” New York Times, October 25, 2012.

[14] Yuchao Zhu, “‘Performance Legitimacy’ and China’s Political Adaptation Strategy,” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2011): 134, accessed October 20, 2012. EBESCO.

[15] Ibid., 133.

[16] Dingxin Zhao, “The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China,” American Behavorial Scientist (2009): 428, accessed October 20, 2012.

[17] Ibid.


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1 Comment

  1. It’s very interesting that I read this article while I am researching Jon Jon! It’s also interesting to see your views on CCP even though you have only been in Mainland China for a short study. I enjoyed reading it. 🙂

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