Rights-oriented or responsibility-oriented? Two subtypes of populism in contemporary China

Published date01 November 2021
Date01 November 2021
International Political Science Review
2021, Vol. 42(5) 672 –689
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0192512120925555
948917IPS0010.1177/0192512120948917International Political Science ReviewGwiazda
Rights-oriented or
Two subtypes of populism
in contemporary China
Tianru Guan
Wuhan University, China
Yilu Yang
University of Melbourne, Australia
The present investigation engages in the debate on populism from a demand/acceptance per-
spective by providing examinations and explanations within the Chinese context. It clarifies the
heterogeneity of China’s populism, separating rights-oriented populism, which shares the element
of anti-elitism with the populism found in most European nations, from responsibility-oriented
populism, which has ideological roots in China’s specific socio-political contexts. The study finds
responsibility-oriented populism to be predominant in China (occupying 76.92% of the populist
sample), with rights-oriented populism only representing 18.04% of the populist respondents.
Using these results, we examine associations between each type of populism and a series of
political ideations. Statistics suggest that China’s rights-oriented populism is negatively correlated
with system justification and national identification. In contrast, stronger responsibility-oriented
populism associates with higher system justification, greater national identification, more satis-
faction with life, and higher right-wing authoritarianism. Finally, implications for research on
populism and on China’s public opinion are discussed.
Populism, rights-oriented, responsibility-oriented, mass line, China
Corresponding author:
Yilu Yang, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia.
Email: yilu_yang@outlook.com
Guan and Yang 673
In recent years, with the significant electoral successes of populist parties around the globe,
populism has become influential in the political landscape of many democracies (Aalberg
et al., 2016; Hameleers et al., 2018; Mu
¨ller et al., 2017). The study of populism in the field of
political science is in a rich period of theoretical and empirical advance. After several
decades of development, the literature is flourishing, with a typological approach that
classifies the seemingly homogeneous notion of ‘populism’ into several distinctive types
(e.g. Jagers and Walgrave, 2007). Conceptual innovations that try to capture the nature
of populism view it as a ‘thin’ ideology that could be combined with other more
concrete political ideas (e.g. Mudde, 2004), a discourse practice, and a mental map ‘through
which individuals analyze and comprehend political reality’ (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2013:
Simultaneously, nuanced empirical analyses have tested the very configurations of pop-
ulist politics: how they have become embedded, and how they have evolved within various
socio-political contexts. However, as most research on populism focuses on the supply side
of populism (e.g. the strategic appeals of populist parties and leaders), much less attention
has been paid to the demand side or the acceptance side of populism (Mamonova, 2019).
This study engages in the debate on populism from a demand/acceptance perspective by
providing examinations and explanations within the Chinese context.
The authors find three interrelated gaps in the current literature that provide an oppor-
tunity for future research on individuals’ populist ideology. The first involves extending the
investigation on populism beyond the democratic context and election campaign. Because
conventionally, the notion of populism has been examined within the agendas of party
politics, it has rarely been studied in authoritarian contexts where fair multi-party elections
are absent or dysfunctional. However, we need to note that populism is not necessarily
identified with liberal democracy. Rather, in some non-democratic regimes, populism is
used as a tool to mobilize the masses into serving collective interests (Brandenberger,
2010). It can also serve as an alternative to elections, by building a direct connection
between state and the public, so that ‘people voluntarily accept and act on the decisions
of their leaders, who are in turn highly sensitive to the popular needs’ (Townsend, 1977:
1009). From this perspective, China – the world’s largest one-party state – emerges as an
appropriate case for populism studies.
The second gap to be explored is the potential heterogeneity within populist ideologies.
Usually, the concept of populism is closely associated with terms such as ‘radicalism’,
‘extremism’ and ‘xenophobia’. However, as Aalberg et al. (2016) suggested, although
many populist actors could be described as right-wing neo-populist, there are a range of
left-wing groups fighting for singular causes that share some key aspects of populist belief
(such as reference and appeals to ‘the people’). Furthermore, studies illustrated that differ-
ent nations’ histories, socio-political trajectories and cultural traditions create distinctive
characteristics and meanings to the manner of their populist approach. Thus, reconsidering
the elements that constitute and diversify populist attitudes is necessary.
The third gap refers to investigating the socio-political and psychological origins of
Chinese populism. If certain unique forms of populism exist in China, we want to know
the nature of the social, political and psychological forces that drive them. While current
research usually assumes connections between certain political ideations and populist beliefs
(e.g. populist ideology walks hand-in-hand with right-wing authoritarianism), few studies

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