By: Wyatt Scott
In their articles “Contemplating China’s Future,” and “The Beginning of The End,” authors David Shambaugh and Minxin Pei describe the internal politics of China’s Communist Party (CCP) and the domestic factors that have exacerbated the disintegration of regime unity. Shambaugh lists a few possibilities of what the future of China may hold, but his second scenario fits the paradigm established by Pei. Shambaugh’s second scenario posits that China is moving forward economically, albeit at a slower pace than the previous decade, and moving backward politically. Likewise, Minxin argues that power sharing within the CCP has been an issue since the Tiananmen Square blunder, and depending on how Xi Jinping acts in the next few years, could result in the dissolution of the CCP. Paradoxically, economic gains have led to increased power sharing amongst China’s society which threatens the CCP and state control over civil liberties. A combination of political and socio-economic factors have led to increased civil unrest and threaten regime unity of the CCP. Thus, if China’s political institutions do not rapidly liberalize in order to extenuate the recent decade of repression, then the CCP will atrophy from within or face cataclysm at the hands of a citizenry that is becoming increasingly exasperated by anti-liberal state control.
The crux of Shambaugh’s argument is that the slower growth rates recently experienced by China’s economy are due to a “pre-modern political system” that has been squelching civil society. Shambaugh uses Samuel Huntington’s criterion of development to explain why China is failing to transition to a post-extractive economy; China, under its current political system, cannot institutionalize the ‘adaptation’ phase of Huntington’s paradigm, and thus, Shambaugh believes the system is likely to die. Using the studies of communist-type regimes, Shambaugh came to the conclusion that China is no different from the rest, and is experiencing post-authoritarian stress wherein the state reasserts control in a final attempt to hold onto power. For example, under Xi Jinping the CCP has begun this process by instituting “a swath of intrusive new regulations and laws concerning national security, cyber security, terrorism, and non-governmental organizations…” These crackdowns are exacerbating civil unrest in China’s periphery (Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong), and Shambaugh believes that the only solution is political liberalization, whether it be a product of state issued institutionalization of a liberalized system, or at the hands of an increasingly repressed society.
Pei’s argument for the future composition of China’s political system is quite similar to that articulated by Shambaugh. However, Pei focuses more on structural inefficiencies in regards to the ‘unraveling’ of authoritarianism in China, as opposed to the developmental theories iterated by Shambaugh. Nonetheless, both authors share a common view that if China does not transition toward social and political liberalization then the economy will stagnate and civil unrest will consume the country, and the CCP will fall. Minxin argues that, based on analysis of autocratic regime vulnerability, due to China being a non-oil producing country and experiencing relatively high levels of income, it is likely that autocracy is coming to an end. To make matters worse for the CCP, Chinese society has also become more educated. Thus, the repressive tactics used by the CCP to restrict media and propagate society could cause a more educated society to revolt. Issues within the CCP regime also play a key role in unraveling the current political situation.
What Pei labels “regime decay,” has taken hold of the CCP and poses an existential threat to the stability of the party. For the purposes of the argument, Pei defines regime decay as:
… a process in which the unity of the ruling elites progressively deteriorates as a result of power struggle and unbridgeable differences over the regime’s survival strategy, the regime’s ideological appeal to its key supporters continuously atrophies, and the corruption of the ruling elites escalates.
All of the factors that Pei describes in the process of deterioration of regime unity are occurring in China. As Shambaugh notes, under Xi, China has unleashed an anti-corruption campaign – meaning that corruption is rampant within the party. This campaign has resulted in “two hundred senior officials (including former Politburo members, ministers, provincial party chiefs, and generals of the People’s Liberation Army) and thousands of local officials,” being jailed. The second aspect of the deterioration process (continual atrophy of support), has been amplified in recent years due to the state’s draconian repression. Centralization of power has also accelerated the decline of regime unity within the CCP. Bringing the head of state into all realms of political activity has caused myriad issues, but has mainly created an uncertainty of succession and a power-sharing struggle amongst party elites.
Both authors seem to be ambivalent about whether the CCP is positively coming to an end, and rightly so. The possibilities for the fall of the regime, or regime stabilization are twofold: First, as the international community witnessed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Arab Spring, events that topple regimes can occur spontaneously and without warning, because a society can only be suppressed so much before revolting. Second, a series of liberal reforms and democratization of the political apparatus could mitigate the factors posing what seems to be an imminent death to the CCP. Unfortunately for the communist regime, domestic developments and the ballooning of unrest amongst China’s periphery seem to point more toward the former. Likewise, developments in technology pose a major threat to the censorship abilities of the CCP. Every time the ‘Great Firewall’ expands its censorship capabilities, a new device or code is invented to undermine it. In addition, as China sends students to the U.S. and other Western-oriented educational institutions, these students experience what liberalism truly means, and upon returning to China, question the repression of Chinese society. Thus, China is throwing gasoline rather than water at the fire. The collapse of the CCP may not be imminent, but a drastic change of course is required if the regime desires to remain in power without experiencing another Tiananmen Square solecism.
David Shambaugh, “Contemplating China’s Future,” The Washington Quarterly. Pg. 125, 126, 127.
Minxin Pei, “The Beginning of the End,” The Washington Quarterly. Pg. 137.
photo via: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_of_China