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In the following essay, I aim to analyze institutionalisms with the support of the current events. According to Peters, institutionalisms are the building blocks of political science which help to elucidate political outcomes (Peters, 1998). To gain a better understanding of how institutions function, I will examine two branches of institutionalisms: the discursive institutionalism and rational choice institutionalism with reference to modern day China.
According to Peters, rational choice institutionalism assumes that actors utilize institutions in their favor, and take actions that grant maximum pay off for an individual or a group of individuals. He also writes that institutions are a cluster of rules that form an actor’s behavior, and rational choice approaches aim to find a solution that will fulfill the requirements of social welfare, but do so not to appear like a hierarchy. Rational choice approaches all presuppose the presence of egocentric traces (Peters, 1998). The underlying arguments of rational choice approaches is that utility maximization of an individual or a group of individuals will be the key motivation; actors realize that their objectives to maximize personal benefit can be done through institutions, and do so. These individuals must be able to handle institutions like the legal system and electoral systems (Hathaway, 2001). One of the best present day examples that highlights the implementation of rational choice in regards to institutionalism is the modern day China. In March 2018, it was announced that Xi’s constitutionally enshrined term limit has been lifted.
Xi Jinping, Chinese President, who has been in office since 2013, is considered to be one of the most powerful leaders throughout the history of China (Bo, 2018). In February 2018, the sole political party – Communist Party of China – made a suggestion to make changes in the constitution that would permit Xi to remain in office even after his term limit expires in 2023. However, that stands against the institutional reforms of Deng Xiaoping. In the 1980s, Deng, the ex-president of China, made some institutional reforms that guaranteed succession of power to the younger leaders/generation. He did that to ensure that younger people would come to office making relevant, positive changes that would reflect new vision for China’s development, and to ensure that the country would not turn into a one-man rule. However, the actions of the Communist Party of China contradict the previously established norms by lifting the term limits for the party’s leader and the vice president. Along with the term limits, were the age limits, which did not allow leaders to be in office after the age of 68, were lifted too (Bader, 2018). However, it is worthy to mention that in December 2012, Xi, who was just about to take office stated, “No organization or individual has the privilege to overstep the constitution and the law.”
From this, we can analyze that the Chinese political party (an institution itself) is being rational in relation to another institution: the constitution. There were suggestions that instead of altering the constitution, Xi could have appointed a successor after his term limit is over, and rule the country “behind the scenes”. For example, it had been suggested that when Medvedev had been serving the presidential term in Kremlin, he was only a nominal figure, who acted on the ideas of Putin (Barder, 2018). Thus, it is arguable that the Communistic Party of China, the leader of which is Xi, did not decide to do the same (in order to shun the speculations of being a dictator) in order to maximize their own utility, and prefer to stay in power and office for as long as they can. The adjustments made will prolong their own interests under Xi’s administration. Thus, it can be drawn that the political party which put forward the suggestion to make Xi a life-long leader was being rational by seeking their own interests through the use of institutionalism. That being said, Xi has contributed greatly to China’s development during his presidential term and will continue leading the country to prosperity that is what he, at least, promises to do. The next institutionalist approach that I would like to discuss is the discursive institutionalism.
Discourse is what you say, how you phrase it and to whom you address it (Schmidt, 2008). The structure that Schmidt describes in her book is as follows: political actors come up with ideas, and then they express their political program to the public. The actors shape mass public opinion “by establishing the terms of discourse and by framing issues for the mass media.” Discourse either makes an idea successful or pernicious depending on how it is being addressed. Successful discourses are oftentimes manipulative, untruthful, may be “happy talk” to conceal the truth of the actors’ hidden intentions. It is an ability to turn the populations’s mind into controllable objects (Schmidt, 2008).
Discursive institutionalism is being implemented in China by its political party. In March 2018, Xi made a speech before the National People’s Congress. Xi promised to develop China into a powerful country and highlighted his determination to eradicate poverty, create an environmentally-friendly industry and develop a better care program for the elderly. He also mentioned that “China should constantly push forward with building the army by political means, reforms, science and technology, as well as accelerating the formation of a … world-class fighting force in the new era.” In addition, he voiced his determination on his anti-corruption movements and hopes to end it. He also expressed a strong sense of unity as he spoke that, “Every inch of the territory of our great nation cannot be separated from China,” Any movements to separate will “face the punishment of history”, he said (SCMP,2018). By saying that he solidified national identity and patriotism. In addition, it might be taken as a warning not to even think of separating. Schmidt also mentioned that when describing protestors who stand in opposition, a discourse of criminality is implemented sanctioning that this type of behavior is inappropriate. So this is an example of it as well. In March 2018, he took a public oath to the constitution, promising to fulfill his legal duties. He was the first president in China to do so.
All of the leader of the party’s words boost the people’s morale and team spirit. Thus, his use of words to positively shape the public’s opinion can be viewed under the lens of discursive institutionalism. He solidified his position as a dignified leader of the country by taking an oath as he pronounced, “I pledge my allegiance to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to safeguard the Constitution’s authority, fulfill my legal obligations …” (Bo, 2018). He also boosted the citizens’ sense of nationalistic identity, value and pride by referring to the country’s long history by convening the significance of unity. And by stating that any attempts to try to make Taiwan independent will fail (either through internal separatist movements or external help) he urged the country to stay united in these trying times.
To summarize, I have analyzed the one of the most recent/phenomenal events – Communist Party of China’s decision to amend the constitution – through the rational choice institutionalism and discursive institutionalism perspective. For RCI, I concluded that the political party was pursing (not only the public’s interest, but) their own interests by eliminating the term limits of the party’s leader and vice president in the newly amended constitution. This will allow the same people to stay in power longer and rule the country the way they think is the best for China’s development. As for discursive intuitionalism, the light in which information is presented and disseminated is a very powerful toolkit in the arsenal of institutionalisms. And the party has utilized the discursive institution to express their determination to fulfill the hopes of Chinese citizens, and put its development atop of all the priorities.


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