How long can China’s Communist party survive?

Shen_Zhihua,_2009“Xi Jinping and this administration provide the last chance for China to implement a social transformation [to a more liberal political system] that comes from within the party and within the system,” says Shen Zhihua, a professor at East China Normal University who specializes in the Soviet Union and the son of People’s Liberation Army officers who served alongside Mao. “Without these reforms there will certainly be a social explosion.”

“As the economy slows and middle-class discontent grows, it is the question that’s now being asked not only outside but inside the country. Even at the Central Party School there is talk of the unthinkable: the collapse of Chinese communism,” writes the FT’s Jamil Anderlini in a must-read analysis of prospects for China’s democratization.

A more significant change for an institution founded to enforce ideological purity is its relatively new role as an intellectual free-fire zone, where almost nothing is off-limits for discussion. “We just had a seminar with a big group of very influential party members and they were asking us how long we think the party will be in charge and what we have planned for when it collapses,” says one Party School professor. “To be honest, this is a question that everyone in China is asking but I’m afraid it is very difficult to answer.”

In less than five years the Chinese Communist party will challenge the Soviet Union (69 or 74 years in power depending on how you count it) and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (71 years until 2000) for the longest unbroken rule by any political party. Modernization theory holds that authoritarian systems tend to democratize as incomes rise, that the creation of a large middle class hastens the process and that economic slowdown following a long period of rapid growth makes that transition more likely. Serious and worsening inequality coupled with high levels of corruption can add to the impetus for change.

“Many people are extremely disappointed by [Xi’s] words and his actions,” says Shen Zhihua. “But there are some who defend him and say once he has consolidated his power and stabilized the political situation then he will push through reforms.”

By this logic, Xi’s authoritarian lurch is more tactical than strategic, a way of rallying the party faithful for the tough reform agenda ahead.

“The more pessimistic, and frankly more realistic, interpretation is that Xi has no fresh ideas so he just quotes Mao and tries to hold on tight to power,” says one reformist “princeling” son of a former senior Chinese leader, who knows Xi well ….. “If that is the case, then China has no hope and eventually the anger in society will explode into a popular uprising.”

Unsustainable political model

“China’s political model is just not sustainable because of the rising middle class – the same force that has driven democracy everywhere,” says Stanford University’s Frances Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “The new generation in China is very different from the one that left the land and drove the first wave of industrialization – they’re much better educated and much richer and they have new demands, demands like clean air, clean water, safe food and other issues that can’t just be solved by fast economic growth.”

China is often cited as evidence to refute Fukuyama’s theory, “with critics arguing that the party’s process of constant reinvention is far more responsive to the needs and demands of its subjects than traditional authoritarian systems,” notes Anderlini:

Until a few years ago, David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and a leading expert on China’s political system, was a strong proponent of this view. But he has changed his mind and now believes that the party is in a state of decline that echoes the dying days of Chinese dynasties throughout history.

The signs include a hollow state ideology that society does not believe in but ritualistically feigns compliance with, worsening corruption, failure to provide the public with adequate social welfare and a pervasive public sense of insecurity and frustration. Other signs include increasing social and ethnic unrest, elite factionalism, over-taxation with the proceeds mostly going into officials’ pockets, serious and worsening income inequality and no reliable rule of law.

Shambaugh says a powerful indicator of just how little faith exists in the system is the number of wealthy Chinese elites with offshore assets and property, offshore bank accounts and children studying in western universities.

“These individuals are ready to bolt at a moment’s notice, as soon as the political system is in its endgame – but they will remain in China in order to extract every last Renminbi possible until that time,” he says. “Their hedging behavior speaks volumes about the fragile stability of the party state in China today.”

“I cannot over-emphasize enough the fact that the CCP [Chinese Communist party] ­leadership continues to live under the Soviet shadow – they are hyper-conscious of the reforms Gorbachev undertook and absolutely refuse to go down that path,” says Shambaugh.

The mummy in the crystal coffin

“The party’s ideological foundation is really very hollow,” says Perry Link, a professor at the University of California Riverside and one of the most well-respected western experts on China. “People join the party these days to make connections and get ahead rather than for any kind of socialist ideals.”

“China has a lot more power militarily, diplomatically and economically than it did in the past and it can tell countries like the UK and US to back off in a way it couldn’t before,” says Prof Link. “But for all this new external power they seem a lot more fragile at home, a lot more concerned about how long they can stay on top of this bubbling cauldron.”

China’s “market Leninism” has not defied the theory that societies democratize as they get richer, according to Liu Yu, an ­associate professor of political science at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Chen Dingding from the University of Macau. Writing in The Washington Quarterly last year, they argued that “those who argue for Chinese exceptionalism overlook the fact that it is too early to tell whether China has proved or disproved modernization theory.”

China’s per capita GDP was about $9,200 in purchasing power terms in 2012 but, according to Liu and Chen, this has not yet reached the level where countries with similar cultural and ­historical backgrounds began transitioning to democracy. In 1988, democratizing South Korea and Taiwan had per capita purchasing power GDP of $12,221 and $14,584 respectively (in 2010 dollar terms), according to Liu and Chen. The levels for the Soviet Union and Hungary in 1989, as they began their political transitions, were $16,976 and $11,257 respectively (2010 dollars).

“The current Chinese system will definitely collapse at some point – it could be months, years or decades but when it collapses everyone will say of course it was bound to happen,” says Prof Link. “The question that really worries me is what will come next. The party has wiped out any group it doesn’t control or which doesn’t see the world like it does and there is nothing to take its place.”

Democracy Digest 

2 Comments on “How long can China’s Communist party survive?”

  1. […] The Butcher “Xi Jinping and this administration provide the last chance for China to implement a social […]

  2. […] How long can China’s Communist party survive? ( […]

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