Source: The Diplomat (10/1/12):
Is China’s Communist Party Doomed?
Could Beijing’s ruling elite succumb to the same fate as those in the
former Soviet Union? Perhaps.
Last Friday’s announcement in Beijing that the ruling Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) will convene its 18th congress on November 8 has
brought much relief to those concerned that political scandals and
power struggle at the very top of the Chinese government have derailed
the once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Finally, the party’s top
leaders seemed to have agreed on what to do with the disgraced former
Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai (likely off to jail) and on whom to
promote to the Politburo and its more powerful standing committee.
For all the obvious reasons, China’s ruling elites will do their best
in the next few months to project an image of unity and
self-confidence, and to convince the rest of the world that the next
generation of leaders is capable of maintaining the party’s political
That is, unfortunately, a tough sell. Confidence in the party’s
internal cohesion and leadership has already been shaken by the Bo
affair, endemic corruption, stagnation of reform in the last decade, a
slowing economy, deteriorating relations with neighbors and the United
States, and growing social unrest. The questions on many people’s
minds these days are how long the party can hold on to its power and
whether the party can manage a democratic transition to save itself.
These questions are by no means the products of idle minds. By many
measures, the party’s rule is about to enter a decade of systemic
crisis. Having governed China for 63 years, the party is approaching,
within a decade, the recorded longevity of the world’s most durable
one-party regimes ‹ the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union (74
years), the Kuomintang (73), and the Revolutionary Institutional Party
of Mexico (71). Like a human being, an organization such as the CCP
In addition, China’s rapid economic development has thrust the country
past what is commonly known as the “democratic transition zone” ‹ a
range of per capita income between $1000 and $6000 (in purchasing
power parity, PPP). Political scientists have observed that
autocratic regimes face increasing odds of regime change as income
rises. Chances of maintaining autocracy decrease further once a
country’s per capita income exceeds $6000 (PPP). China’s has already
reached $8500 (PPP). And nearly all the autocracies in the world with
a higher per capita income are petro-states. So China is in an
socioeconomic environment in which autocratic governance becomes
increasingly illegitimate and untenable. Anyone who is unconvinced of
this point should take a look at Chinese Weibo (or microblogs) to get
a sense of what ordinary Chinese think of their government.
Thus, the answer to the question of the durability of one-party rule
in China is clear: its prospects are doomed.
The answer to the question of how a one-party regime can manage its
own political transformation to save itself is more interesting and
Essentially, there are two paths for such regimes: the Soviet route to
certain self-destruction, and the Taiwan-Mexican route to self-renewal
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, top CCP leaders have resolved not
to repeat the Soviet tragedy. Their policy has been, therefore,
resisting all forms of political reform. The result is,
unfortunately, an increasingly sclerotic party, captured by special
interests, and corrupt and decadent opportunists like Bo. It may have
over 80 million members, but most of them join the party to exploit
the pecuniary benefits it provides. They themselves have become a
special interest group disconnected with Chinese society. If the fall
of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) offered any real lessons, they
are definitely not the official Chinese narrative that Gorbachev’s
political reforms brought down the party. The sad truth is: the
Soviet regime was too sick to be revived by the mid-1980s because it
had resisted reforms for two decades during the rule of Brezhnev.
More importantly, the CCP should know that, like the millions of the
members of the CPSU, its rank and file are almost certain to defect in
times of a regime crisis. When the CPSU fell, there was not a single
instance of loyal party members coming to the defense of the regime.
Such a fate awaits the CCP.
That leaves the CCP with only one viable option: the Taiwan-Mexican
path of self-renewal and transformation. The one-party regimes in
Taiwan and Mexico are, without doubt, the most successful ones in
transforming themselves into multi-party democracies in the last
quarter century. Although the stories of their transition to
democracy are different and complex, we can glean four key insights
into their successes.
First, leaders in Taiwan and Mexico confronted a legitimacy crisis in
the 1980s and realized that one-party regimes were doomed. They did
not deceive themselves with illusions or lies.
Second, both acted while their regimes were stronger than the
opposition and before they were thoroughly discredited, thus giving
them the ability to manage a gradual transition.
Third, their leaders centralized power and practiced inner-party
dictatorship, not inner-party democracy, in order to overcome the
opposition of the conservatives within the regime. In one-party
regimes, inner-party democracy will surely lead to an open split among
the ruling elites, thus fatally weakening the a reformist regime’s
ability to manage the transition. Additionally, making the entire
political system more democratic, mainly through competitive elections
in cities and states, will provide the ruling elites an opportunity to
learn a critical skill: seeking support from voters and winning
elections. Such skills cannot be learned through the dubious exercise
of inner-party democracy, which is simply another name for elite
bargaining and manipulation.
Fourth, a moderate democratic opposition is the best friend and
greatest asset a reformist one-party regime has. Such an opposition
is a negotiating partner and can help the regime maintain transitional
stability. It can also offer much better terms protecting the
interests of the ruling elites and even helping them avoid jail.
When we look at the rewards reaped by the KMT and the PRI, they
included not only favorable terms for exiting power (except for
President Salinas, who was forced into exile because of corruption),
none of the senior leaders faced criminal prosecution. Most
importantly, both the KMT and PRI managed to recapture the presidency,
the seat of political power in both countries, after spending two
terms in opposition.
But can the CCP actually learn from the KMT or the PRI?
Its willingness aside, the CCP faces an additional hurdle. It is
still a totalitarian party, not an authoritarian party. The
difference between a totalitarian party and an authoritarian party is
that the former is far more deeply and extensively embedded in the
state and the economy. The CCP controls the military, the judiciary,
the bureaucracy, and the economy to a far greater extent that the KMT
or the PRI. Extricating a totalitarian party from a state is far more
difficult. In fact, such a feat has never been tried successfully.
In the former Soviet Union, it led to regime collapse. In Eastern
Europe, democratic revolutions did not give such regimes a chance to
So the task for China’s new rulers is truly daunting. Their first
order of business is actually not to plunge into a Gorbachev-style
political perestroika, but the de-totalitarianization of the Chinese
state and the transformation of the CCP into another KMT or PRI.
Without taking this intermediate step immediately, the CCP may find
that a Soviet-style collapse is its only future.