Is China’s ruling Communist party about to enter a decade of systemic crisis that will undermine the durability of one-party rule?
Single-party regimes have the option of pursuing the Soviet route to self-destruction or the Taiwan-Mexican option of “self-renewal and transformation,” says a leading analyst.
But the current inner-party factional struggles and troubled leadership transition are highlighting the party’s dubious legitimacy, and raising questions about its capacity for political reform and internal regeneration.
“The Chinese Communist party would like the world to believe that the forthcoming trial of Bo Xilai will be a triumph of authoritarian self-policing and evidence of its ability to root out a few bad apples,” says a prominent observer.
“In fact, the downfall of one of the country’s most senior politicians and the lurid details of murder, sex, money and power that accompanied it have had almost entirely the opposite effect,” writes the FT’s Jamil Anderlini, undermining the party’s “carefully cultivated perception that, while there may be corruption and wrongdoing at lower levels, the system is governed by clean and selfless elites who live only to serve the masses.”
But recent revelations of endemic corruption have proved that “the rot goes right to the top” and dispelled the illusion – evident in local protests against corrupt local officials such as last year’s revolt in the village of Wukan – that the country’s leaders are committed to the people’s welfare:
In the many small uprisings that continually bubble up across China, the protagonists almost always believe that if the country’s enlightened leaders only knew about local corruption they would descend like a deus ex machina to administer justice.
One senior retired western diplomat who specialized in China for nearly 30 years recently confided to the FT that the Bo Xilai case had prompted an epiphany when he finally realized the top mandarins were just as tainted as officials at the lower levels.
Yet other observers contend that the current crisis may even strengthen the ruling Communist party:
In the West, it may seem self-evident that the party, even under weak leadership, has parted ways with a bad apple of his stature. But many in China are impressed by the party’s actions. What at first glance would seem to be a catastrophe for the party could ultimately solidify its control. “I would not have expected his case to be handed over to the courts,” says regime critic Li Datong.
“Putting a Politburo member of his caliber on trial is a sign of authority,” says Hu Xingdou, a Chinese economist and reformer.
The recent political machinations are “all well and good for the organization of the Party,” says Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
“But it leaves one huge question unanswered: How will the transition affect China’s domestic and foreign policies?”
The honest answer is that nobody knows. The Party’s leadership transition today is less about policy than about the protection of entrenched interests. The various factions at the top can trust only those who will ensure the security of their respective factions and families. The policy preferences of the incoming leaders may matter, but since they choose to say nothing, we have no choice but to wait and find out.
China’s ruling Communist elite is “weak,” dissident artist Ai Weiwei tells Der Spiegel, but he expects that the next generation will embark on necessary reforms. The emerging new leaders “know that they have to make great changes.”
SPIEGEL: You’re expected in Washington for the opening of a major show of your work, and in Berlin to begin the professorship that the Academy of the Arts has offered you. But there is no mention whatsoever in the Chinese state media about you, your case and the fact that you’ve been barred from leaving the country.
Ai: Strange, isn’t it? Not a word about me in the gossip columns, and not a word on the political pages, and yet in a single night there were more than 500 articles about me in the rest of the world.
SPIEGEL: But with your lawsuit, aren’t you practically challenging the authorities to lock you up?
Ai: I don’t want to be trapped by that logic. Of course they’ll win against me in the short term, but not in the end, because they are weak. In fact, they’re so shy that they don’t even dare to discuss my case in public. I’ve seen shy girls, and shy little boys, too — but have you ever seen such a shy government?
Ai also expresses hope for the new generation of leaders set to take power early next year:
SPIEGEL: A new group of men will assume China’s leadership in a few weeks, the fifth generation since Mao, the generation of the princelings. It’s also your generation. Xi Jinping, the designated party leader, is only four years older than you.
Ai: And I became aware of that recently. I came across a photo showing my father, the poet Ai Qing, next to the father of Xi Jinping, the politician Xi Zhongxun. For quite some time, both followed similar life paths, both were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps we, their sons, could share a few experiences with each other. I believe that the new leaders know that they have to make great changes in this country. It’s impossible for things to remain the way they are.
Hat tip: China Digital Times.
The Washington retrospective exhibition includes an installation comprised of 3,200 porcelain crabs called “He Xie” (above), a play on the words for river crab which also sound like the word “harmonious.” The ruling Communist party’s purportedly aspires to create “a harmonious society,” but the slogan has become social media slang for online censorship.
Ai’s biography illustrates why his art blends the aesthetic and the political, says Mami Kataoka of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, who organized the exhibit:
Ai’s father, Ai Qing, was a famous Chinese poet. Shortly after the Cultural Revolution and Ai’s birth, however, the family was exiled during China’s Anti-Rightist Movement. Ai saw his father humiliated, reduced to cleaning public toilets, Kataoka said.
“He was born out of those kind of social conditions,” she said. “I think it’s only natural for him to question about human rights.”
The party has come a long way from the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, as its current purge of its most prominent neo-Maoist would suggest. But the official media’s portrayal of the Bo Xilai scandal as evidence of the party’s “commitment to rule of law” and “superb ability to deal with complicated situations” is a gross distortion of the facts, says the FT’s Anderlini:
When historians look back on the Bo Xilai scandal they will almost certainly identify this as the moment when China’s vicious backroom political battles spilled into the open and the myth of the good emperor was shattered.
Far from revealing authoritarian China’s meritocracy and ability to self-correct, the Bo Xilai saga underscores how its leaders believe they are above the law and how little accountability there actually is.
There are essentially two strategic options for single-party regimes: the Soviet route to self-destruction or the Taiwan-Mexican option of “self-renewal and transformation,” writes Pei, a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States:
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.
But the official party line has failed to appreciate the real lessons of the Soviet Communist Party’s demise:
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.
It is highly debatable whether the CCP is in a position to pursue the Taiwan-Mexican strategy of self-renewal as many question “how long the party can hold on to its power and whether the party can manage a democratic transition to save itself,” says Pei:
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). ….
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). … Chances of maintaining autocracy decrease further once a country’s per capita income exceeds $6000 (PPP). China’s has already reached $8500 (PPP). … 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.
The challenge facing the new generation of leaders is “truly daunting,” Pei concludes:
“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,” he writes. “Without taking this intermediate step immediately, the CCP may find that a Soviet-style collapse is its only future.”
China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.