Last Friday’s announcement in Beijing that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will convene its 18th congress on November 8 has brought much relief to those concerned that political scandals and power struggle at the very top of the Chinese government have derailed the once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Finally, the party’s top leaders seemed to have agreed on what to do with the disgraced former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai (likely off to jail) and on whom to promote to the Politburo and its more powerful standing committee.
For all the obvious reasons, China’s ruling elites will do their best in the next few months to project an image of unity and self-confidence, and to convince the rest of the world that the next generation of leaders is capable of maintaining the party’s political monopoly.
That is, unfortunately, a tough sell. Confidence in the party’s internal cohesion and leadership has already been shaken by the Bo affair, endemic corruption, stagnation of reform in the last decade, a slowing economy, deteriorating relations with neighbors and the United States, and growing social unrest. The questions on many people’s minds these days are how long the party can hold on to its power and whether the party can manage a democratic transition to save itself.
These questions are by no means the products of idle minds. By many measures, the party’s rule is about to enter a decade of systemic crisis. Having governed China for 63 years, the party is approaching, within a decade, the recorded longevity of the world’s most durable one-party regimes — the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union (74 years), the Kuomintang (73), and the Revolutionary Institutional Party of Mexico (71). Like a human being, an organization such as the CCP also ages.
In addition, China’s rapid economic development has thrust the country past what is commonly known as the “democratic transition zone” — a range of per capita income between $1000 and $6000 (in purchasing power parity, PPP). Political scientists have observed that autocratic regimes face increasing odds of regime change as income rises. Chances of maintaining autocracy decrease further once a country’s per capita income exceeds $6000 (PPP). China’s has already reached $8500 (PPP). And nearly all the autocracies in the world with a higher per capita income are petro-states. So China is in an socioeconomic environment in which autocratic governance becomes increasingly illegitimate and untenable. Anyone who is unconvinced of this point should take a look at Chinese Weibo (or microblogs) to get a sense of what ordinary Chinese think of their government.
Thus, the answer to the question of the durability of one-party rule in China is clear: its prospects are doomed.