The answer to the question of how a one-party regime can manage its own political transformation to save itself is more interesting and complicated.
Essentially, there are two paths for such regimes: the Soviet route to certain self-destruction, and the Taiwan-Mexican route to self-renewal and transformation.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, top CCP leaders have resolved not to repeat the Soviet tragedy. Their policy has been, therefore, resisting all forms of political reform. The result is, unfortunately, an increasingly sclerotic party, captured by special interests, and corrupt and decadent opportunists like Bo. It may have over 80 million members, but most of them join the party to exploit the pecuniary benefits it provides. They themselves have become a special interest group disconnected with Chinese society. If the fall of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) offered any real lessons, they are definitely not the official Chinese narrative that Gorbachev’s political reforms brought down the party. The sad truth is: the Soviet regime was too sick to be revived by the mid-1980s because it had resisted reforms for two decades during the rule of Brezhnev. More importantly, the CCP should know that, like the millions of the members of the CPSU, its rank and file are almost certain to defect in times of a regime crisis. When the CPSU fell, there was not a single instance of loyal party members coming to the defense of the regime. Such a fate awaits the CCP.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
That leaves the CCP with only one viable option: the Taiwan-Mexican path of self-renewal and transformation. The one-party regimes in Taiwan and Mexico are, without doubt, the most successful ones in transforming themselves into multi-party democracies in the last quarter century. Although the stories of their transition to democracy are different and complex, we can glean four key insights into their successes.
First, leaders in Taiwan and Mexico confronted a legitimacy crisis in the 1980s and realized that one-party regimes were doomed. They did not deceive themselves with illusions or lies.
Second, both acted while their regimes were stronger than the opposition and before they were thoroughly discredited, thus giving them the ability to manage a gradual transition.
Third, their leaders centralized power and practiced inner-party dictatorship, not inner-party democracy, in order to overcome the opposition of the conservatives within the regime. In one-party regimes, inner-party democracy will surely lead to an open split among the ruling elites, thus fatally weakening the a reformist regime’s ability to manage the transition. Additionally, making the entire political system more democratic, mainly through competitive elections in cities and states, will provide the ruling elites an opportunity to learn a critical skill: seeking support from voters and winning elections. Such skills cannot be learned through the dubious exercise of inner-party democracy, which is simply another name for elite bargaining and manipulation.
Fourth, a moderate democratic opposition is the best friend and greatest asset a reformist one-party regime has. Such an opposition is a negotiating partner and can help the regime maintain transitional stability. It can also offer much better terms protecting the interests of the ruling elites and even helping them avoid jail.
When we look at the rewards reaped by the KMT and the PRI, they included not only favorable terms for exiting power (except for President Salinas, who was forced into exile because of corruption), none of the senior leaders faced criminal prosecution. Most importantly, both the KMT and PRI managed to recapture the presidency, the seat of political power in both countries, after spending two terms in opposition.
But can the CCP actually learn from the KMT or the PRI?
Its willingness aside, the CCP faces an additional hurdle. It is still a totalitarian party, not an authoritarian party. The difference between a totalitarian party and an authoritarian party is that the former is far more deeply and extensively embedded in the state and the economy. The CCP controls the military, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the economy to a far greater extent that the KMT or the PRI. Extricating a totalitarian party from a state is far more difficult. In fact, such a feat has never been tried successfully. In the former Soviet Union, it led to regime collapse. In Eastern Europe, democratic revolutions did not give such regimes a chance to try.
So the task for China’s new rulers is truly daunting. Their first order of business is actually not to plunge into a Gorbachev-style political perestroika, but the de-totalitarianization of the Chinese state and the transformation of the CCP into another KMT or PRI. Without taking this intermediate step immediately, the CCP may find that a Soviet-style collapse is its only future.