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  • Performance Legitimacy for Realists
  • Ben Cross (bio)

I. Introduction

The term "performance legitimacy" has frequently been used over the course of the last decade or so to describe how certain East Asian governments, especially China, seek to attain political legitimacy (Guo 2006, Yang and Tang 2010, Zhu 2011, Jing et al. 2015, Yang and Zhao 2015, Ratigan 2022, Cross 2021a). A government that relies on performance legitimacy seeks to legitimate itself by means of producing policies that lead to positive material outcomes for the people: economic growth, poverty alleviation, quality infrastructure, and so on.1

The claim that good performance, so understood, can provide a pathway to legitimacy stands in contrast to the traditional understanding of legitimacy set out by Max Weber (1958; 1978, pp. 212–245). Weber famously identifies three distinct sources of legitimacy: legal, traditional, and charismatic. Let us call these "Weberian sources of legitimacy." All three of these sources of legitimacy are at least in principle distinct from what Weber calls a "sheer interest situation" (1958, p. 1), in which citizens obey rulers purely because doing so is in their best material interest: "purely material interests and calculations of advantages as the basis of solidarity between the chief and his administrative staff result, in this as in other connexions, in a relatively unstable situation" (1978, p. 213).

This Weber-inspired rejection of performance legitimacy thus seems to rely on three premises:

  1. 1. Cooperation between citizens and rulers is reliably stable only when citizens are motivated by values.

  2. 2. So-called "performance legitimacy" supposes that citizens are motivated by pure expediency, rather than values.

  3. 3. "Legitimacy," as a concept, is best understood as referring to situations in which citizens have a reliably stable motivation for cooperating with rulers.

Note that the first premise of this argument is an empirical, rather than a conceptual claim. If motivations not based on values could facilitate reliably stable cooperation between citizens and rulers, then the premise would be [End Page 129] false. Presumably Weber assumes here that calculations of interest are changeable, and/or that rulers' capacity to produce results that benefit citizens is subject to contingent factors outside their control. However, it is important to note that empirical evidence could conceivably reveal these assumptions to be false. Weber can thus be understood as rejecting performance legitimacy on essentially empirical grounds. Even if he defines the concept of legitimacy in such a way that it excludes the possibility of performance legitimacy, his decision to define the concept in this way is motivated by acceptance of the empirical claim that stable cooperation between citizen and ruler cannot be reliably sustained solely on the basis of appeals to the material interests of the former.

Some scholars appear to echo this Weberian critique of performance legitimacy by arguing, perhaps in spite of appearances, that the Chinese government does not rely primarily on performance legitimacy. Instead, they argue, it draws on a mixture of traditional Confucian guardianship discourse and a narrative of continuing a revolutionary communist legacy (Tong 2011, Chu 2013, Zeng 2014).

More recently, Jiwei Ci (2019) has provided a different sort of critique of performance legitimacy. Although Ci notes that there are some empirical reasons to think that the legitimacy of the Chinese government does not stem primarily from performance (2019, pp. 18, 40–43), his main argument seems to be more general and conceptual. For Ci, the problem with performance legitimacy is not merely that it is an unreliable way of securing legitimacy, since good performance is not always easy to maintain. Rather, it is that the very idea of performance legitimacy is a "misnomer" (p. 19). Absent a Weberian source of legitimacy, "no amount of good performance will suffice" (p. 20). Ci thus appears to provide a less contingent basis for ruling out the possibility of performance legitimacy than the Weberian empirical critique. His argument may not necessarily be independent of all empirical considerations, but it does appear not to rely on one such consideration that seems to play a decisive role in Weberian rejections of performance legitimacy: it is not always possible for governments to maintain good performance.2

Apart from the fact that it offers a different type of critique...