The South China Morning Post has published an opinion piece by Minxin Pei arguing the we are seeing the “beginning of the end” of one-party rule in China.
Pei argues that, historically speaking, dictatorships typically last at most from 70 to 75 years. This has been true of dictatorships in Mexico, Taiwan (the KMT ruled autocratically from 1927 to 1949 on the mainland and from 1949 to 2000 in Taiwan), and the Soviet Union. The Kim family has ruled in North Korea for 71 years. Are there counter examples? The article doesn’t cite any, but many of the Chinese imperial dynasties lasted much, much longer than 75 years. Is the CCP more like dictatorships in other countries, or more like a Chinese imperial dynasty?
Pei makes other arguments based on politics, economics, military challenges, diplomacy, and domestic policy. Let’s discuss some of those issues.
Economically, China is facing challenges. The trade war with the U.S. is hurting China’s economy, despite the blustering denials coming from the CCP’s pet media outlets. From a military standpoint, even though China has been enlarging and modernizing its military, it is still far behind the U.S. military’s capabilities. Diplomatically, China’s “belt and road” initiatives and dollar diplomacy have made some headway, but China is still very much distrusted, and has few, if any, friends of consequence in the western Pacific. Japan, Korean, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Taiwan all have contentious, if not actually hostile, relationships with China. Russia has a sometimes-friendly, sometimes-not relationship with China. At this moment, China and Russia seem to be cooperating, but that could change at any time, should the relationship sour.
Domestically, the CCP has sold itself by touting the improving standard of living. Millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, there is no doubt about that. But coming from the abject state that the Chinese people lived in prior to the 1980’s, achieving that only required economic policies that weren’t completely disastrous. Much of the miraculous growth in the Chinese economy was achieved through capital investment coming from Western countries, Japan, and Taiwan. That growth has slowed, and capital from developed countries is moving into countries with cheaper labor (and better legal protections, in some cases). If the Chinese economy drops into recession, on what will the CCP base its claim to rule legitimately? It is stoking nationalism as one means, but sustained nationalism requires sustained national achievement and true pride in one’s country. With the CCP so disrespected in the world, it is hard to imagine that the Chinese people can truly believe in its legitimacy over the long term.
Dictatorships and one-party states face inherent internal contradictions. Every government, as an organization run by imperfect people, is imperfect and makes mistakes. Public and world opinion changes, natural disasters occur, new ideas arise, countries go to war, and so on. Things happen.
True democratic societies have a built-in mechanism – periodic elections – to make policy changes in response to changes in society and the world. Sometimes they are slow to respond, but they can respond in a deliberate way that reflects the will of the majority of the people (hopefully, as in the U.S., while respecting the rights of people that disagree). In essence, elections are “mini-revolutions” that allow for political challenges to be addressed through peaceful change.
Dictatorships and one-party states do not have this mechanism, so internal stresses build up that eventually lead to their downfall. They are “brittle.” They often respond to challenges either wildly or not at all. They become corrupt, as their legal systems are not fair and are bound to the policy of the one-party state; thus, they lack legitimacy. State-run economic systems cannot respond quickly to changes in markets, and so are inefficient. Historically in China, the process of a dynasty becoming weak and corrupt, unable to respond effectively to internal and external challenges, is known as “losing the mandate of heaven,” and it has always led to the downfall of the imperial dynasty, and eventual replacement by another. Is the CCP losing the “mandate of heaven?”
The modern, high-tech police state implemented in China, with ubiquitous surveillance, “social credit” scores for every person, and so on, maybe will allow the CCP to maintain its power through more efficient oppression of the Chinese people, but how long can that last? At what point do the Chinese people, with the greater access to information now than in the past, look at the rights that citizens of other countries enjoy, and say, “what about us?” Dictatorships and one-party states, like the Soviet Union, often have collapsed (as the famous quote says) “slowly, then all at once.” Will the CCP collapse in the same way?
Periods between dynasties in China have often been times of horrifying bloodshed and civil war. No one wants that in China. Could the CCP transition peacefully, allowing free elections and truly independent opposition political parties, as happened in Taiwan? That would be the best-case scenario, but it doesn’t seem likely, especially as long as Xi Jinping rules the CCP and mainland China autocratically. Could the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong spark a pro-democracy movement in the mainland? The CCP clearly is very, very afraid of that happening, but right now, that doesn’t seem likely either. In this writer’s view, the CCP is firmly in power in mainland China and will remain so, despite the challenges it faces. It may be the beginning of the end for the CCP, but sadly, the end is still far in the future.