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What Next: The Chinese Communist Party

Modern China: The Promise and Challenge of an Emerging Superpower

Issue 2, June 2008

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The “fifth generation” of CCP leaders will assume power in and around 2012. Largely Western-educated and widely traveled, they grew up in peacetime and perhaps do not instinctively fear the instability that further democratic reform would undoubtedly unleash. Yet, the very survival of their privileges in society would certainly be at stake; and mankind has shown itself to be anthropologically wired for self-preservation. Below, taken from a variety of experts and perspectives, is a synopsis of the debate that is taking place in Beijing, Washington, and around the world.

Can the CCP preserve its mandate to govern in the face of economic liberalization, globalization, and the increasing (planned and spontaneous) opening of Chinese society to the rest of the world?


Those that would argue “yes” generally believe that the CCP has studied well and learned its lessons, from Tiananmen Square to the fall of the USSR and through the rigorous inspection and evaluation of best practices in governments from around the world and across time. The Party is not hardened; it has enormous “resiliency,” as many experts have noted, and is constantly adapting to changing conditions on the ground. As mentioned above, it has co-opted those with the most time and talents for fomenting change through the economic prosperity over which it presides. Those not co-opted are either benefiting from the economic prosperity or are too busy working as farmers or laborers to rise up in a coordinated revolt, despite their sporadic and isolated protests of the many injustices they face. The vocal dissident community is largely controlled through effective intimidation and suppression measures that not only silence the dissidents themselves but serves as a deterrent to other citizens.

Generally, enough reform in the areas of personal, economic, and social freedoms outweighs the limited nature of political reforms. Nevertheless, just enough meaningful political reform is introduced at the local and intra-party levels to provide a safety valve function. The foreign policy of the CCP has been, for the most part, successful, producing peace and largely restoring China’s image internationally as a force to be reckoned with after the “century of humiliation.” High level Central Party officials are well-liked, and the general impression of the Party is as a meritocracy where talented people painstakingly ponder the future of the world’s most populous nation and one of its largest economies. The indoctrination process largely still continues to work, as evidenced by the growing nationalism and xenophobia of the college-educated youth in the population. International criticism now often meets with vigorous pro-Chinese responses without prompting from the Party itself. The recent earthquake was devastating, and revealed serious corruption at the local level, but the Central Party members may potentially feel they can deflect this blame on the growing decentralization of government, and possibly use it as an excuse to consolidate power centrally. The Olympics are coming with great fanfare; the world seems to have increased empathy for the Chinese following the earthquake, a noted change from the negative press from the Olympic Torch’s tortuous journey through the West. Life is generally good, and with measured reform and determined tinkering, it should stay that way with minimal challenges to the Party’s overall mandate to govern.


Those who believe the CCP’s days are numbered can be just as convincing. Most here believe that serious cracks exist under the surface of China’s shiny new façade -from corruption to increasing wealth inequities, to protests that threaten to gain momentum, to divisiveness within the Party, and the lack of Party capacity to reign in its vast, decentralized system. These experts generally believe that the repression of free speech and association has only masked a growing discontent among the Chinese people, and made this discontent more dangerous because the Party has no way of gauging how people are feeling or where there enemies are. Rod McFarquar talks of “regime tiredness,” and the inability of the CCP to maintain its “competency mandate” in the face of mounting complexities associated with China’s rapid modernization. In this view, the CCP is paranoid and often irrational, and the situation is ripe for dangerous miscalculation by a reactive government in the face of an unforeseen forcing event.

Experts disagree on what this “spark” might be. It could have been (and could still be) the 2008 Sichuan earthquake as grieving parents retaliate against corrupt local officials that had a hand in shoddy school construction and the One-Child Policy that has left them completely bereft. It could easily come in the form of recession or declining economic growth. It could even be in the form of a mishandling by the CCP of an international slight. The spark could come from anywhere, be man-made, such as an act of terrorism, or a natural disaster, such as another earthquake or an epidemic. Experts here argue that the Party is too brittle to withstand such a forcing event, and that its implosion and/or overthrow would be certain.

Should the CCP falter, there is also tremendous disagreement about what might replace it in a country with 1.3 billion people, enormous domestic challenges, many neighbors, and absolutely no experience with Western-style democracy. The replacement could be something much worse than the CCP, such as a military junta. Regardless, the fall of the CCP would send shockwaves through every government and economy in the world. It is, to many, a case of being careful what you wish for.

A Compromise Position

Most, outside extreme hawks in the Pentagon, and avid human rights activists, realize the CCP’s problems are complex, and that the best chance for influencing China’s evolution toward a more liberal state is to engage with the current Chinese leadership, and press for reforms through the use of respected multilateral forums and pressures that signal a win-win, rather than a zero-sum game of reform. Regardless, whatever develops will be particular to Chinese culture, traditions, and current realities. China’s unique system does not now and will not in the future look like anything the world has ever seen before.


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