The conventional wisdom about China’s possible political futures is that the entrenched Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so determined to defend and perpetuate its political monopoly, has the means to survive for an extended period, says a leading China expert.
“A minority view, however, holds that the CCP’s days are numbered [and that] a transition to democracy in China in the next 10 to 15 years is a high probability event,” writes Minxin Pei.
Two principal causes of authoritarian decline emerge from decades of research and the accumulated experience of democratic transitions in roughly 80 countries over the past 40 years:
First, there is the logic of authoritarian decay. One-party regimes, however sophisticated, suffer from organizational ageing and decay. Leaders get progressively weaker (in terms of capabilities and ideological commitment)….. The result is escalating corruption, deteriorating governance, and growing alienation of the masses. Empirically, the organizational decay of one-party regime can be measured by the limited longevity of such regimes.
Second, the effects of socioeconomic change –rising literacy, income, and urbanization rates, along with the improvement of communications technologies — greatly reduce the costs of collective action, de-legitimize autocratic rule, and foster demands for greater democracy. ….. Few authoritarian regimes, unless they rule in oil-producing countries, can survive once per capita income hits more than $6,000 (PPP)…..China is well into this “zone of democratic transition”
China’s is “a robust regime surrounded by meta instability,” said Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, outlining three possible scenarios at a recent National Endowment for Democracy meeting (above): collapse, resilience or democratization.
As for the latter, there are five scenarios for democratic transition, says Pei, writing in The Diplomat:
“Happy ending” would be the most preferable mode of democratic transition for China. Typically, a peaceful exit from power managed by the ruling elites of the old regime goes through several stages. It starts with the emergence of a legitimacy crisis, which .. convinces some leaders of the regime that the days of authoritarian rule are numbered and they should start managing a graceful withdrawal from power….. At the moment, the transition in Burma is unfolding according to this script.
The paradox, however, is that regimes that are strong enough are unwilling to reform and regimes that are weak cannot reform. In the Chinese case, the odds of a soft landing are likely to be determined by what China’s new leadership does in the coming five years because the window of opportunity for a political soft landing will not remain open forever.
“Gorby comes to China” is a variation of the “happy ending” scenario with a nasty twist. …Hardliners are discredited and replaced by reformers who, like Gorbachev, start a Chinese version of glasnost and perestroika. But the regime by that time has lost total credibility and political support from key social groups. Liberalization triggers mass political mobilization and radicalism. …. Amid political chaos, the regime suffers another internal split, .,…….with the rise of a radical democratizer replacing a moderate reformer. …..Should such a scenario occur in China, it would be the most ironic. For the last twenty years, the Communist Party has tried everything to avert a Soviet-style collapse.
“Tiananmen redux” is a third possibility. Such a scenario can unfold when the party continues to resist reform even amid signs of political radicalization and polarization in society. The same factors that contribute to the “Gorby scenario” will be at play here, except that the trigger of the collapse is not a belated move toward liberalization by reformers inside the regime, but by an unanticipated mass revolt that mobilizes a wide range of social groups nationwide, as happened during Tiananmen in 1989. The manifestations of such a political revolution will be identical with those seen in the heady days of the pro-democracy Tiananmen protest and the “Jasmine Revolution” in the Middle East. ….
“Financial meltdown” – our fourth scenario – can initiate a democratic transition in China in the same way the East Asian financial crisis in 1997-98 led to the collapse of Suharto in Indonesia. The Chinese bank-based financial system shares many characteristics with the Suharto-era Indonesian banking system: politicization, cronyism, corruption, poor regulation, and weak risk management. It is a well-known fact today that the Chinese financial system has accumulated huge non-performing loans and may be technically insolvent if these loans are recognized. In addition, off-balance sheet activities through the shadow-banking system have mushroomed in recent years, adding more risks to financial stability. ….
But even if the party should survive the immediate aftermath of a financial meltdown, the economic toll exacted on China will most likely damage its economic performance to such an extent as to generate knock-on effects that eventually delegitimize the party’s authority.
“Environmental collapse” is our last regime change scenario. Given the salience of environmental decay in China these days, the probability of a regime change induced by environmental collapse is not trivial [because] the economic costs of environmental collapse will be substantial, in terms of healthcare, lost productivity, water shortage, and physical damages. Growth could stall, undermining the CCP’s legitimacy and control. Environmental collapse in China has already started to alienate the urban middle-class from the regime and triggered growing social protest. Environmental activism can become a political force linking different social groups together in a common cause against a one-party regime seen as insensitive, unresponsive, and incompetent on environmental issues.
“To date, few have seriously thought about the probability and the various plausible scenarios of a regime transition in China,” Pei concludes, but “it should become blindingly clear that we need to start thinking about both the unthinkable and the inevitable.”