'Days of one-party control in China are numbered'
June 5th, 2013
07:05 AM ET

'Days of one-party control in China are numbered'

Leading China scholar Minxin Pei answers readers' questions on China's middle class, relations with the United States and whether the country will ever become truly democratic.

The United States has often subscribed to the notion that it is an "exceptional" nation, notes “Sam A” on Facebook. “As such its foreign policy could not be compared to the realpolitik of the old world. Similarly, China has also seen itself as ‘exceptional’ with an ancient foreign policy based on the Under Heaven system. To what degree are these world views similar?”

This isn’t an easy question.  While it’s conventional wisdom to claim that the U.S. considers itself exceptional, American foreign policymakers don’t allow the notion of American exceptionalism to cloud their judgments. In fact, American foreign policy is, by and large, realpolitik. The idea of “Chinese exceptionalism” is relatively new, and is often associated with China’s economic development model since the late 1970s. The so-called “under heaven system” is no more than an academic concept promoted by China’s international relations theorists eager to develop a theory that can rival the classic theory of realism. This concept may have some influence in academic circles in China, but Chinese foreign policymakers, consummate practitioners of realpolitik, have not embraced it.

If we have to compare these two world views, they are fundamentally different.  There is an irony about American exceptionalism.  While Americans may think of themselves as exceptional (in terms of their historical experience, freedom, and democracy), they at the same time strongly believe their values are universal.  By comparison, to the extent there is something called Chinese exceptionalism, its advocates don’t believe the idea embodies any universal values.
The rise of the Chinese economy has been accompanied by the emergence of a new middle class, notes “Peera Charoenvattananukul.” Many Chinese are voicing their concerns over social issues, foreign affairs, and even the Communist Party's mistakes. How do you expect the Communist Party to cope with this trend?

The growth of China’s middle class – actually a diverse group that may include as many as 300 million people in terms of income, education, and social status – is changing Chinese politics. So far, this group hasn’t become overtly political. But the ruling Communist Party cannot afford to alienate or antagonize this group.  At the moment, the majority of this group are concerned mainly with economic and quality of life issues.  The social problems they feel most strongly about are environmental pollution (this group has participated in several high-profile large protests to stop local governments from building projects that would threaten their health and property), food safety, education quality and housing prices.

Official corruption is another issue that can galvanize this group.  Foreign affairs, at least for now, isn’t an issue this group seems to care deeply about. To the extent they do care, they get most of their information about the rest of the world from official sources, which tend to be influenced by conspiracy theories and nationalist sentiments. As for the Communist Party’s past mistakes, this is again a subject that, for now, doesn’t interest this group a great deal.

The bottom line is, at the moment, that the Chinese middle class is not part of an anti-regime movement. But its growing demands for improvement in quality of life, secure property rights, and clean government will severely test the Communist Party’s ability to deliver.  The capacity of a one-party state to meet these demands is very limited because fighting official corruption, protecting the environment, improving education, and ensuring food safety will necessarily entail political changes that can curtail the party’s power, promote the rule of law, and expand civil society.

The party’s strategy to cope with the rise of the middle class is “tactical adjustment without changing strategy.” The party would respond to this group’s demands and adopt measures to address individual problems, mostly through technical means.  For example, if residents in a city oppose the building of a petrochemical plant, the local party boss will decide to move the project elsewhere. When a food safety scandal breaks out, the government will punish the responsible parties.  But behind these specific steps, the party isn’t doing anything to change the underlying political system that produces these problems. The party’s overall strategy is to rely on growth, not radical reform, to stay in power.

Can a rising China exist peacefully with the U.S. in the Pacific, asks “Ho-ting Tu” on Facebook?

The most important factor determining whether the U.S. and China can co-exist peacefully is not the amount of power China has, but the nature of its political system. If China’s rise continues under its current one-party regime, the U.S. will always be worried about the “China threat” while the Chinese Communist Party, which rules the country, won’t cease to regard the U.S. also as a threat. Threat perception is a function of disparity of power, but also a function of the differences in political systems and the degree of legitimacy we attach to the political regimes of our rivals.

As long as China’s Communist Party views the U.S.-led West as bent upon trying to subvert its political monopoly, and as long as America’s political establishment regards the Communist Party as lacking fundamental political legitimacy, there will always be geopolitical tensions between the two countries. Such tensions, however, won’t necessarily lead to a full-fledged military conflict (an unthinkable prospect between two nuclear-armed powers), but they will limit the cooperation and economic potential between the two countries.

“Othin Jeremiah” asks: “Can you see China at any point evolving into a multi-party state?”

At the moment, it’s hard to envision. But when we take a longer-term view, a transition to a multi-party political system in China is a foregone conclusion. Although one-party regimes are the most sophisticated and durable authoritarian system in our times, such regimes don’t last forever.  They eventually succumb to two powerful forces: socioeconomic modernization and internal decay. In terms of socioeconomic modernization, social science research has shown that once per capita income crosses a certain threshold (about $4,000 in purchasing power parity, or PPP), authoritarian regimes in non-oil producing states face greater risks of fall. The Chinese per capita income is at almost $9,000 in PPP terms. It’s already an outlier. There are only 24 countries in the world today that have a higher per capita income than China but are not full democracies.  Twenty of them are oil-producing states.  The remaining four are Singapore, Tunisia, Belarus, and Lebanon. If economic growth in China continues, even at 5 percent, for the next twenty years, per capita income in China will reach $20,000 dollars in PPP.  In that kind of society, very few tax-payers would be willing to let a one-party regime spend their tax dollars without accountability or representation.

The other driver of regime change is internal decay – a fancy term for corruption. The ruling elites of one-party regimes are, in essence, investors of political capital. They work so hard to get where they are not because they fervently believe in communism (which, as an ideology, died in China three decades ago), but because they want to extract economic benefits from their powerful positions in the government. Such motives drive corruption. And there is a self-accelerating logic here. While the more senior members of the ruling elites typically benefit more personally from their positions, the officials in lower positions naturally worry that there may not be much left to steal once they reach those coveted slots. As a result, instead of patiently waiting for their turn with self-restraint, such officials start looting with abandon.  This logic drives endemic corruption in China.

If you apply this theory, then you probably understand why no one-party regime in history has survived for more than 74 years in power (the former Soviet Union).  The Chinese Communist Party is about to celebrate its 64th year in power.  In another decade, China will reach the upper limit of the longevity of one-party regimes.

“Sean B.” asks: “What do you make of China's current ties with Russia?”

Current ties are built on tactical utility but strategic distrust. Both countries find each other useful on certain issues (especially in countering American power and protecting their clients, usually pariah states). But they simply don’t trust each other. Russia regards China as a threat, while China doesn’t believe that Russia is truly a great power. Even on energy, the two countries have repeatedly failed to realize the potential of a genuine partnership.

“Is it possible for China to slowly deflate its real estate bubble and continue to steadily grow GDP?” asks “Tri”. “And what do you make of the prospects for growth in the economy more generally?”

Deflating the real estate bubble is a technically daunting challenge, and I don’t know enough to tell anyone whether China can do so slowly. In most cases of real estate bubbles, the pop usually comes quickly and unexpectedly. So if I have to bet, that may also happen in China. I feel more comfortable about saying something about China’s growth prospects. The consensus among China-watchers is that the era of double-digit growth is over for China. But high single-digit growth will be a challenge if China doesn’t undertake structural and institutional reforms, such as downsizing the role of the state in the economy (in particular, by privatizing state-owned enterprises), liberalizing finance, reforming the fiscal system, deregulation, encouraging competition, and so on.

The list of technocratic recommendations for sustaining China’s growth may be long but its essence is quite simple: China must adopt a new development model that relies less on the state, and more on the market, in order to sustain growth.  Of course, China’s economic fundamentals – such as labor costs, demography, and the environment – have already deteriorated, but the country’s growth potential remains high. With the right reform, China can still expect to reach its goal of becoming a high-income country.

But the big question here is that these reforms are going to threaten the interests of the core constituencies of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese leaders won’t be able to implement these reforms without introducing political reforms, particularly those that will empower civil society and place the power of the state under the rule of law.

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Qian

    Good article.

    June 5, 2013 at 10:14 am | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    Political-economy can downsized, the upper-class Countries. But, the incomes of the 1% Populations will rise, extremely.

    June 5, 2013 at 10:22 am | Reply
  3. Sean B.

    Badass, thanks for the answer. This blog is the greatest kept secret in intelligent foreign policy.

    June 5, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Although a political opening is just a matter of time in China, the Communist Party hangs on to this one-party rule as long as it can. Today hundreds of millions had been taken out of poverty and the baby-boomers reap the economic gains, that they had toiled for. But the generation Y has little idea of the grievances of past generations. The media savvy singletons want much more and they are the ones, who would bring in reforms. Hopefully!

    June 6, 2013 at 7:12 am | Reply
    • Sean B.

      Hopefully is right!

      June 6, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Reply

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