Regime rethink ... number’s up for China
I STILL vividly recall my thoughts when taking off on a flight from Warsaw to London in June 1987.
As I looked down on receding, dark-grey Warsaw, completely pulverised during World War II, my thoughts turned to how Poland was being economically devastated by Soviet-style Communism, which was forcibly imposed in 1944-45.
My overriding thought was that, since Communism seemed so impregnable, Poland would have to endure it for a further 300 or so years.
Instead, within just three years, men such as Lech Walesa, Jacek Kuron, and Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski, became more important than the then head of state, Soviet-trained officer in Polish military uniform, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, since they’d be deciding their nation’s destiny.
Like countless Western pundits on Communism and east European affairs, I’d also completely missed seeing those unexpected and momentous liberating events coming, right up until early 1989, as they so dramatically unfolded, sparking the dismantling of the Soviet Union’s bolshevik order ... and nearly China’s.
My thoughts of June 1987 returned last May when I read a Wall Street Journal article headlined, ‘Clock Ticks on China’s One-Party Rule’, and ‘sub-headed ‘Beijing autocracy is at the end of the line’.
Author, MinXin Pei, is a Carnegie Endowment scholar, professor of government, and director of international and strategic studies at California’s Claremont McKenna College.
Pei graduated from Shanghai’s International Studies University, as well as from Pittsburgh and Harvard universities.
Besides writing several farsighted scholarly articles on governance and corruption in China, he’s released From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and The Soviet Union, and China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy.
Let’s consider his case as outlined in the Wall Street Journal.
Pei began by stating that China’s current leadership seems increasingly bogged down by relatively minor issues of state rather than focusing upon their “regime’s long-term survival”.
He raised the fact that they recently felt compelled to purge one of their close colleagues, “politburo member Bo Xilai in a messy power struggle on the eve of a leadership transition”.
The leadership also felt compelled to become involved with “the escape of blind rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, from house arrest to the US embassy in Beijing”.
These digressions prompted Pei to conclude that China’s leadership was failing to focus on important long-term considerations.
“When rulers of one of the most powerful countries in the world have to worry about the defiant acts of a blind man, it’s time for them to think the unthinkable: is time up for the Communist Party?
“Asking such a question seems absurd.
“If anything, the party has thrived since its near-death experience at Tiananmen in 1989.
“Its membership has swelled to 80 million, and its hold on power, bolstered by the military, secret police, and internet censors, looks unshakeable.
“But beneath this facade of strength lie fundamental fragilities.
“Disunity among the ruling authorities, rising defiance by dissidents, riots, official corruption, the list goes on.
“For students of democratic transition, such symptoms of regime decay portend a systemic crisis.”
According to Pei, China’s Communist Party has entered a perilous phase, one studded with “mortal dangers”.
To better appreciate these dangers for their seemingly powerful party it helps to consider three numbers – 6,000, 74 and 7.
“Statistical analysis of the relationship between economic development and the survival of authoritarian regimes shows that few non-oil producing countries can sustain their rule once per capita GDP reaches $US6,000 ($5,890) a year in purchasing power parity,” Pei wrote.
“Based on estimates by the International Monetary Fund, Chinese GDP per capita is $US8,382 in PPP terms ($US5,414 in nominal terms).
“This makes China an obvious authoritarian outlier.
“Of the 91 countries with a higher per capita GDP than China, 68 are full democracies, according to Freedom House, 10 are partly free societies and 13 are not free.
“Of the 13 countries classified as ‘not free’, all except Belarus are oil producers.
“Of the 10 ‘partly free’ countries, only Singapore, Tunisia and Lebanon are non-oil producers.”
Tunisia recently ousted its long-ruling autocrat; prospects for democracy now seem brighter in Singapore; and Lebanon had its Cedar Revolution in 2005, he added.
Pei concluded that similar conducive “democratic breakthrough” conditions could be seen emerging in China.
Furthermore, sustaining one-party rule is ever more costly, and efforts to preserve it are increasingly seen as being utterly futile.
Then the number 74 – “the longest lifespan in years enjoyed by a one-party regime in history, that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1917-1991).” Mexico’s one-party rule was slightly shorter, 71 years (1929-2000); and the Kuomintang, firstly on China’s Mainland then Taiwan, to where it fled in 1949, was 73 years.
“Social scientists have yet to work out why one-party regimes, arguably the most sophisticated of modern-day autocracies, cannot survive beyond their seventh decade,” Pei says.
Furthermore, “systemic crises” seem to emerge in such regimes about a decade before their collapse.
China’s communists have governed for 62 years.
“If history offers any guidance, China is about to enter its crisis decade, and probably has at most 10-15 years left on its clock,” he says.
A crucial factor in the collapse of such regimes is the emergence of what Pei calls a “counter elite”, something that definitely occurred in Poland before Solidarnosc’s creation.
Such entities are made-up of “talented and ambitious, but frustrated, individuals kept out of power by the exclusionary nature of one-party rule.”
Crucially, not even today’s super-wealthy China can absorb every graduate into top party/government positions.
“So the party has a problem summarised by this ratio, 7:1,” Pei says.
“Chinese colleges and universities graduate 7 million bachelor degree-holders a year.
“The party admits 1 million new members with a college education or higher each year, thus leaving out roughly 6 million newly minted university graduates.
“Since party membership is still linked to the availability of economic opportunities, a sizable proportion of this excluded group is bound to feel the system has cheated them.
“Many will turn their frustrations against the party.
“Over the next decade, this group could grow into tens of millions, forming a pool of willing and able recruits ready to join the political opposition.
“So the odds do not look good for those in Beijing who want to maintain the status quo indefinitely.”
Pei thus recommends that China’s Beijing-based bosses should begin seriously thinking about how to lay the basis “to exit from power gracefully and peacefully”.
He suggests they begin by releasing opposition leaders such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Men like Liu will be desperately needed as negotiating partners when China’s transformation towards democracy begins, just as Walesa, Kuron and the Kaczynski twins were needed in 1989.