Exit and Voice as Mechanisms for CCP Reform

Albert O. Hirschman's renowned work Exit, Voice, and Loyalty  remains a staple of political science departments, gracing introductory curricula in undergraduate programs. This extended essay reorients the way we view processes that are taken for granted, much in the same way as Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Contemporary readers and intellectuals can push back on these sweeping theses, they can even marshal evidence to undermine the entire enterprise, yet nonetheless the ideas must be addressed, wrestled and reckoned with.

Exit is commonly applied to the economic realm. Exit is the mechanism that tells a firm that something is wrong, based on decline in revenue. Hirschman's fascinating insight is that exit may not always work as the best recuperative mechanism and, in a simplistic theory of economics, the flow of exits would not be reversible and firms would go bankrupt. We need to add to the mix the issue of quality, consumer preferences, and consumer loyalty, which are separate variables that cannot be captured in the basic quantity and price concepts. Add to this "voice," which are the complaints of consumers who want to see the firm regain its footing.

Voice is commonly applied to the political realm. Think of protests, demonstrations, or public debates in the media and within political parties. While voice is the usual recourse for constituents, there is a place for exit, whether it is a change of parties or resignation from a government position to protest the policy of an administration. Similar to economic firms, constituents of political parties have preferences (where they fall on a left-right spectrum) that will affect how willing they are to use voice or exit or a combination of both. 

Hirschman's seemingly basic perspective of voice and exit as mechanisms for signaling deterioration of firms and organizations, when applied, can get quite complicated. This blog, being a regional-focused, is not the appropriate place to hash them out. But needless to say, Hirschman develops his ideas in creative and even surprising ways (i.e., the positive function of monopolies in certain circumstances, the reason for polarization in two-party states). 

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty does not address as thoroughly the issue of one-party, totalitarian regimes. Clearly, his work has clearly evident contributions to make to the political science literature on the topic, but to develop a full theory of voice and exit requires the richer pastures of multi-party states. Hirschman, however, does lay out the building blocks of an analysis of totalitarian regimes. 

There are probably no organizations that are wholly immune to either exit or voice on the part of their members. The ones that have been listed in the cell corresponding to that category are those that, in their intended structure, make no explicit or implicit allowance for either mechanism. Exit is here considered as treason and voice as mutiny. Such organizations are likely to be less viable, in the long run, than the others; exit and voice being illegal and severely penalized, they will be engaged in only when deterioration has reached so advanced a stage that recovery is no longer either possible or desirable. Moreover, at this stage, voice and exit will be undertaken with such strength that their effect will be destructive rather than reformist (121).

The "cell corresponding to that category" is referring to "[p]arties in totalitarian one-party systems, terroristic groups, and criminal gangs"  (121).


This is very prescient seeing that it was published in 1970 and this prediction played out the narrative of the Soviet Union's collapse. Exit was of course possible through defection, and voice was exercised more through whispers, but the Soviet regime suppressed dissent, labeling it, as Hirschman writes, "as treason and...as mutiny." This pent up groundswell of dissatisfaction was released by Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika , which became "destructive rather than reformist".

Voice and Exit: Destructive or Reformist? 

Those who follow political reform in China know the tectonic reverberations the Soviet collapse sent through Beijing. The PRC has historically taken cues from Soviet political developments, learning from their "mistakes". When Kruschev denounced Stalin, Mao Zedong feared the rise of a Chinese Kruschev who would denounce his legacy. Hence Mao's removal of Deng Xiaoping near the end of the Cultural Revolution for fear that Deng's more liberal leanings might encourage him to distance himself from Mao after the Great Helmsman died.

After the Soviet disintegration, the CCP also took note. This time, the fear was a Chinese Gorbachev. Reformers pushing for political liberalization, on top of Deng's 1980s economic opening, had the Gorbachev boogeyman to watch out for. 

Hirschman argued that sometimes exit is not the best way for a firm or organization to reverse deterioration; rather, voice can be a powerful instrument if the organization creates avenues rather than barriers. While the CCP may not frame its recuperative mechanisms using Hirschman's language, the party implicitly recognizes the need for voice. And there is no doubt that the CCP has deteriorated (e.g., corruption) and is facing a legitimacy problem.  The principal-agent problem in the CCP's devolution of power to lower administrative tiers is recognized by top leaders, who can and have used top-down (e.g., Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) and bottom-up mechanisms (e.g., newspapers, media, local elections).

Making Space for Voice 

Deterioration has reached a point where "mass incidents" are becoming commonplace. Rural areas experience demonstrations that at times morph into riots. But is the increasing willingness of Chinese nationals to voice their dissatsfaction an indication that the CCP's deterioration, in Hirschman's words, "has reached so advanced a stage?" Likely not; the reasoning being that the CCP has created space for voice.

Joseph Fewsmith's Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China  (reviewed here) does a superb job outlining the way local cadres are experimenting with political openness. Locals are included in budgetary discussions and representatives (including non-party members) are selected in public elections. Trade associations are giving local entrepreneurs more say over public policy when it comes to business issues. Yet at the same time, Fewsmith demonstrates that reform is often short-lived. Reform is hardly ever institutionalized. Instead, reform initiatives by local, charismatic cadres are stepping stones to a better job; and these reforms fall apart when these figures leave.

Voice at the village and township levels is complemented by virtual voices. The CCP has allowed government criticism to a larger degree than would be expected. Sina Weibo is rife with snarky comments that poke fun at the regime and wider social woes. Earlier this year, Harvard released a study on Chinese censorship titled, "How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression." The findings are summed up in the title. The primary thrust of Chinese censorship is to counteract "social mobilization." Negative comments about the government, leaders, and policies, are tolerated.

Space for Voice is Limited 

Should the injection of voice into the equation make China watchers optimistic? Has the CCP found a way to circumvent Hirschman's logic? While the CCP recognizes the recuperative effects of allowing voice to curb cadre malfeasance, it is unable to shake Hirschman's logic: as totalitarian organizations deteriorate and forego voice and exit as options for feedback, voice and exit lose their potential for reform and instead become tools of destruction. The CCP holds up this line of reasoning as true to experience--look at Gorbachev.

So the CCP is in a bind. They allow voice as a recuperative mechanism, but limit its ability to truly arrest party deterioration because the party fears that political reform will get out of hand and lead to mass exit. Time will show China finding it increasingly more difficult to keep voice and exit from being destructive as the limits of temporary reforms become evident. It's a vicious cycle--the limits of reforms allow deterioration to continue, creating local demand for reforms, which prove limited because of Gorbachev's cautionary tale. Voice is still an attractive avenue for Chinese nationals, but what happens when the vocal cords grow hoarse with little to show for it and there's a new groundswell for exit?