Nonstop party

The surprising persistence of Chinese communism

By Joshua Kurlantzick
November 22, 2009

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ARRIVING IN CHINA last week as part of his multi-country Asia trip, President Barack Obama echoed many of the same themes as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush before him. He saluted China’s ancient and dynamic culture, touted the intricate links between American and Chinese businesses, and vowed that Washington and Beijing would work to prevent any conflict from erupting between them. Calling China a “majestic country,” Obama vowed that “The notion that we must be adversaries is not predestined.” But Obama made one dramatic change from the historical script: He did not predict that the Communist Party would collapse.

For at least two decades, most American leaders - and many American China-watchers - have been waiting for the party to fail. At least since the Tiananmen protests of 1989, the US foreign policy establishment has assumed that China’s Communist Party would eventually bow, making way for Chinese democracy. After all, in 1989 virtually every other communist regime collapsed, and in the following years democracy spread across Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and East Asia, including neighbors of China such as Thailand and South Korea. “Color Revolutions” swept through countries as diverse as Georgia and Lebanon. Even nations far poorer than China, like Malawi and Bangladesh, held successful multi-party elections.

American leaders also offered more principled arguments for why the Chinese Party eventually could not continue to “stand on the wrong side of history,” in the words of Bill Clinton. New communications technology, like cellphones and the Internet, would allow people to organize out of the watch of the regime. (Bill Clinton once memorably compared China’s efforts to control the Internet to “nailing Jell-O to a wall.”) Economic development would build a middle class, which had proven the key to democratization in other parts of the world. As the Communist Party grew larger, farther from its early revolutionary days, and richer, it would become harder for it to keep its senior leadership united, and corruption would grow so endemic that it would alienate the population.

Yet Beijing has defied history and nailed Jell-O to the wall. Today, no obvious challengers confront the party’s rule, and the senior Chinese leadership, now preparing for the next transition of power in 2012, appears completely united. The average Chinese citizen, at least in urban areas, seems to have bought into Communist Party rule. One poll of Chinese citizens taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that people in China have a higher degree of satisfaction with conditions in their nation than in almost any country studied.

“Many China observers have long been predicting that China’s encounter with market forces or liberal institutions and instruments from the West would spur inevitable democratic change,” argues Ying Ma, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, in an essay in Policy Review. “They have been delusional.”

China’s Communist Party has turned the conventional wisdom on its head. Rather than economic growth undermining the regime, the party has used that expansion to strengthen its hold on political power. Instead of the Internet opening up avenues for dissidents and bringing freer flows of information to the People’s Republic, the party has harnessed the Web to reinforce nationalism and bolster its control over the information Chinese have access to. Through its success, the CCP forces Western nations to question whether democracy is truly the inevitable end state of political development - and whether the party’s model could work elsewhere.

FOR DECADES, POLITICAL theorists such as Harvard’s Samuel Huntington argued that the development of a middle class drives political liberalization. When a sizable middle class developed, they believed, that group would begin to make more demands on the state for the kind of social and political freedoms that go along with their increasing economic freedom. In addition, the middle class would become educated, and would learn about the history of liberalization in other parts of the world, and then begin to import these concepts back at home.

In China, this has not happened. Within China in the 1980s, these urban elites were angry about stagnant wages, one of the reasons for the protests that led to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. By sparking growth, liberalization has made the urban elites, who are critical to any political movement, less interested in pushing for political change that might upset their standard of living. But even as it has opened the economy, the party has maintained enough control of economic levers - banks, key companies - that the urban elites see the party as part of the creation of wealth, rather than an impediment to it. Shanghai now boasts a GDP per capita of nearly $9,000, putting it on par with middle-income countries.

The regime has increased salaries for academics, who played a major role in the 1980s protests, and for other professionals with government-linked jobs, according to Minxin Pei, a China specialist at Claremont McKenna College in California. The party also has opened membership to private entrepreneurs - another decision that cast the party as benefiting urban businesses. Indeed, entrepreneurs soon coveted party membership because it allowed them to network with officials, who could make or break their business ventures.

The “middle class is the strongest supporter of the party,” notes John Lee, a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “These elites comprise the fastest-growing groups wanting to become party members.”

In this way, China is not unique: in many other developing countries, urban elites have realized that, at least in its initial stages, political freedom could threaten their economic gains, by opening opportunity to a wider spectrum of society and, potentially, by allowing populist politicians to redistribute wealth. So, from Russia to Malaysia to Thailand, economic growth has pushed urban elites closer to authoritarian regimes, which they see as best protecting their interests. Sometimes, those urban elites actually help overthrow a democratic government to replace it with an authoritarian regime, as happened in Thailand, where elites backed a 2006 coup.

China has also disproved the notion that integration with the world reduces the kind of sour nationalism exploited, during the Cold War, by authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union. China has certainly integrated itself with the world: It enjoys a staggering trade surplus with the US, has developed into the manufacturing platform for the world, and voraciously consumes Western popular culture and food. But this embrace of Western products has not meant an embrace of Western ideas on democracy, or warmer views of the United States. In the 2009 BBC poll of global public opinion, 58 percent of Chinese had a negative view of the United States - and this at a time when America’s global image overall was improving.

By presenting China’s economic growth as a triumph over a world aligned against the People’s Republic - Chinese media constantly portray the West as attempting to halt China’s rise - the party has turned that economic success into a tool of aggrieved nationalism. On many Chinese blogs and Internet forums, which are dominated by young urbanites, writers this year cheered premier Wen Jiabao’s public chiding of Western countries for getting the world into a financial crisis, and applauded the governor of China’s central bank when he publicly suggested the world should shift away from the dollar as the reserve currency.

At the same time, Beijing has systematically fostered Han Chinese nationalism, through the use of school textbooks, youth groups, spectacles like the 60th anniversary parade and the Beijing Olympics, and other means of bolstering ethnic Chinese pride. This new nationalism helps ensure that protest in outlying ethnic minority regions, the most likely sources of turbulence, do not spread to the rest of China, since ethnic Han increasingly take the side of the state against minorities.

It has also become clear that the spread of information technology does not necessarily open up politics. The party successfully filters information before it even gets to average Chinese, so that they receive a skewed, limited view of the world. Yet because the filters, which include blocking certain websites and ensuring certain stories never appear in the domestic media - are not readily apparent, the Chinese media appears as professional as the West, and most citizens have little idea they are not getting the whole story. By contrast, a regime that obviously controls the media, like Burma, where domestic papers read like Pravda, is essentially tells its public that they are getting false news.

The spread of technology has not fostered change in Iran, or Russia, where average citizens seem willing to allow a greater consolidation and state domination of most media. In Russia, as in China, the Internet has allowed average citizens to read outside reporting on Russia, and yet the government’s use of nationalism shades views of foreign coverage of Russia, while its domination of domestic television means that it can effectively flood the airwaves with pro-government messages, calling into doubt foreign reporting (or the occasional independent Russian reporting) critical of the Kremlin.

THE CCP’S HOLD is forcing the world to re-evaluate the stability of authoritarian regimes. Perhaps, Westerners are realizing, countries can survive for decades, or even longer, without making a transition to democracy, even as they become wealthy. Indeed, after years of reporting gains in the numbers of nations classified as “free” or “partly free,” in its 2009 report Freedom House noted what it calls a “freedom stagnation” - three straight years of a decline in global freedom. The Obama administration also seems to have recognized that authoritarian rule may be stable in some places, and it is trying to engage Burma, Sudan, and other autocratic regimes.

Other authoritarian regimes now try to copy the Chinese “formula” for staying in power: just enough reform to co-opt the middle class, using nationalism to shore up the regime, and moderating (and monitoring) the flow of information into the country. Most successfully, Vietnam, which for years sent officials to China to study the Communist Party’s strategy, has followed the CCP’s policies like a textbook. Other countries, from Cuba to Syria to Kyrgyzstan, also have sent senior officials to China to study the party’s methods. Other authoritarian regimes seem almost awed by China’s success. Indeed, in some countries, like Syria, officials tout the idea of importing a “China model” without seeming capable of even defining what China has done, other than pairing some economic liberalization with virtually no political liberalization.

And yet China’s model contains some serious flaws. The regime’s stability depends upon favoring the urban elites, who tend to be the most involved in politics, but unequal growth will come back to bite the regime. Already, China has among the worst levels of income inequality in Asia, and there is no evidence this will improve. While Chinese urbanites may be happy, the rural masses are becoming increasingly disaffected. The vast majority of the tens of thousands of “mass incidents” (protests) in China each year take place in rural areas. In the first quarter of 2009 alone, Chinese authorities estimated there were more than 50,000 of these incidents, which have become increasingly violent, with protestors wielding clubs, bombs, and other weapons against local officials.

The Communist Party’s success also relies on boosting nationalism, but in the long run, the young nationalists it has created may become just as critical of the government as their liberal democratic predecessors in the 1980s - critical of Beijing for not being tough enough with the rest of the world, for example. Indeed, during the 2007 Tibet protests, many young Chinese nationalists took a far harder stance, online, against foreign countries that criticized Beijing than the CCP actually did. And economically, the party may face a different conflict: its success depends upon retaining enough control of the economy that it can control the allocation of capital, key jobs, major projects, and other foundations of the economy, yet in the long term continued economic growth may require greater opening of the economy, as happened in nearly every other Asian tiger economy after a certain period of state control.

For now, Beijing appears capable of papering over these flaws. Certainly, the Party is not unaware of them - and while it attempts to address them, other countries likely will continue copying the Chinese formula. Unlike many communist regimes before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the CCP appears to understand its own weaknesses and is prepared to combat them. Recognizing the threat of income inequality, the party launched a campaign to “Develop the West” - to plow investment into poorer parts of central and western China, so that they can catch up to the coastal regions. Understanding the potential dangers of nationalism, Beijing has, in recent years, tried to blunt some of the more aggressive nationalism by rethinking its school textbooks and other means of education.

And yet, American policy makers need not just accept that the Communist Party will rule forever, or ignore the party’s abuses. After all, to the hundreds of millions of rural Chinese who have not benefited from the party’s economic reforms, China remains in many ways an oppressive and brutal place. And despite the party’s co-opting of urban elites, there remains, in influential intellectual circles, discussion of the need for greater liberalization, highlighted last year by an online petition called Charter 08 that called for building the rule of law in China.

An effective American China policy, then, should balance greater acceptance of Beijing’s rising power with a demonstration that, despite China’s rising influence, the US is not going to back off core beliefs, such as human rights advocacy. Washington also must recognize that trade and investment alone will not open up Chinese politics; the US could focus on areas where Beijing, though increasingly sure of itself, remains weak - such as providing technology for Chinese bloggers to get around Internet filters, or highlighting the vast problems of rural Chinese society (both Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have extensive Chinese broadcasts which penetrate rural China).

Washington has walked this line before. In a previous era when many academics believed the Soviet regime would last for decades, American administrations both dealt with Moscow on issues like arms control and pressured it on human rights. And the Soviet Union, perhaps like China today, had internal fissures whose extent went unappreciated. Ultimately, the USSR’s weaknesses overwhelmed it.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.