“The consensus is stronger than at any time since the 1989 Tiananmen crisis that the resilience of the authoritarian regime in the People’s Republic of China is approaching its limits,” writes Columbia University political scientist Andrew J. Nathan. What remains unclear, however, is when the breakthrough moment will come and what will be its trigger.
Regime transitions belong to that paradoxical class of events which are inevitable but not predictable. Other examples are bank runs, currency inflations, strikes, migrations, riots, and revolutions.
As [Timur] Kuran puts it in his analysis of how the East European communist regimes collapsed in 1989, “seemingly unshakable regimes saw public sentiment turn against them with astonishing rapidity, as tiny oppositions mushroomed into crushing majorities.”
No one knows why one “collective incident” and not another is capable of sparking a cascade. Perhaps the outbreaks that have been occurring ever more frequently in China have been too small and too local. Perhaps the regime has responded too deftly with a mix of punishments and concessions.
Moreover, the PRC is not East Germany. It is not the client of a hated foreign power, but a rising state proud of its prospects. Its economy is growing faster, not more slowly, than those of its neighbors.
Three other contrasts are important.
First, citizens’ access to information about what other people think is not as occluded in China today as it was in the East Germany of the 1980s. The rise of the Internet and social media—as well as a more sophisticated government propaganda strategy that floods citizens with harmless information and allows a limited level of grumbling for tension relief—has allowed citizens to know a fair amount about one another’s desire for change. …..The kind of message the regime censors especially strictly is the type that proposes a concrete blueprint for change, such as the one found in Charter 08.5 The difficulty that people have in envisioning an alternative to CCP rule is one of the greatest obstacles to voicing a demand for change.
Second, on the repressive side of the equation, the police in China are more numerous, better funded, more technologically advanced, and more skillful in the arts of repression than in other authoritarian regimes. They seem so far to have kept up with the rise of the Internet and new social media, censoring messages that they view as threatening, posting messages that support the regime, and punishing messengers whom they consider particularly dangerous, such as Liu Xiaobo (above) and Ai Weiwei. So while people may know more about one another’s desire for change than they do in the classic cascade model, they also have a frightening picture of the regime’s capacity and willingness to repress critics.
Third, the PRC regime as it stands today is more adaptive than other authoritarian regimes. The leadership proactively addresses the most neuralgic sources of popular dissatisfaction by making health and retirement insurance available, attacking corruption, cracking down on the worst polluters, and increasing the appearance of transparency and accountability with devices such as e-government, opinion surveys, and limited-scope elections.
From where we sit, on the unpredictable side of what may turn out to be an inevitable event, fundamental change in fact continues to look unlikely. Small farmers are unhappy, but they live scattered across the countryside and far from the center of power. Worker unrest has increased, but it focuses on enterprises, not the government. Intellectuals are weak as a class, divided, and unable to spark resistance. Civil society is growing in scale and potential assertiveness, but remains under effective government surveillance and unable to form national linkages. Independent entrepreneurs have ideas and means, and show increasing initiative, but their stake in stability makes them cautious. The broad middle class sees through the regime but is busy enjoying itself. National minorities such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians live on the periphery of a vast continental landmass and are culturally and socially cut off from the much larger Han Chinese majority.
When it comes to defecting from the existing order, each group seems likely to look at the others and pipe up with a hearty “After you!”
Change, if and when it happens, will not necessarily come in a form that we envision or that Chinese actors prefer. Some Chinese form of democracy is one possible outcome, but since there is no well-developed opposition movement (as there was in Taiwan before its democratic transition in the late 1980s), the prodemocracy forces would have to come from inside the ruling Communist Party. A Chinese Vladimir Putin might emerge to reconsolidate authoritarian or semi-authoritarian institutions. A crisis might even galvanize a shift from social dissatisfaction to social support for the current regime. Or China might descend into disorder, a scenario that no prodemocracy activist, Chinese or foreign, wants.
What one can say, however, as we wait for history to deliver its answer, is that more and more people believe some kind of change is coming.
This is an extract from a longer article in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Democracy.