Speculating about China’s possible political futures is an intellectual activity that intrigues some and puzzles many. The conventional wisdom is that the entrenched Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so determined to defend and perpetuate its political monopoly, has the means to survive for an extended period (though not forever). A minority view, however, holds that the CCP’s days are numbered. In fact, a transition to democracy in China in the next 10 to 15 years is a high probability event. What stands behind this optimistic view about China’s democratic future is accumulated international and historical experience in democratic transitions (roughly 80 countries have made the transition from authoritarian rule to varying forms and degrees of democracy in the past 40 years) and decades of social science research that has yielded important insights into the dynamics of democratic transition and authoritarian decay (the two closely linked processes).
To be sure, those believing that China’s one-party regime still has enough resilience to endure decades of rule can point to the CCP’s proven and enormous capacity for repression (the most critical factor in the survival of autocracies), its ability to adapt to socioeconomic changes (although the degree of its adaptability is a subject of scholarly contention), and its track record of delivering economic improvement as a source of legitimacy.
To this list of reasons why the Chinese people should resign themselves to decades of one-party rule will be a set of factors singled out by proponents of the theory of predictable regime change in China. Among many of the causes of the decline and collapse of authoritarian rule, two stand out.
First, there is the logic of authoritarian decay. One-party regimes, however sophisticated, suffer from organizational ageing and decay. Leaders get progressively weaker (in terms of capabilities and ideological commitment); such regimes tend to attract careerists and opportunists who view their role in the regime from the perspective of an investor: they want to maximize their returns from their contribution to the regime’s maintenance and survival. The result is escalating corruption, deteriorating governance, and growing alienation of the masses. Empirically, the organizational decay of one-party regime can be measured by the limited longevity of such regimes. To date, the record longevity of a one-party regime is 74 years (held by the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union). One-party regimes in Mexico and Taiwan remained in power for 71 and 73 years respectively (although in the case of Taiwan, the accounting is complicated by the Kuomintang’s military defeat on the mainland). Moreover, all of the three longest-ruling one-party regimes began to experience system-threatening crisis roughly a decade before they exited political power. If the same historical experience should be repeated in China, where the Communist Party has ruled for 63 years, we may reasonably speculate that the probability of a regime transition is both real and high in the coming 10-15 years, when the CCP will reach the upper-limit of the longevity of one-party regimes.
Second, the effects of socioeconomic change –rising literacy, income, and urbanization rates, along with the improvement of communications technologies — greatly reduce the costs of collective action, de-legitimize autocratic rule, and foster demands for greater democracy. As a result, authoritarian regimes, which have a relatively easy time ruling poor and agrarian societies, find it increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to maintain their rule once socioeconomic development reaches a certain level. Statistical analysis shows that authoritarian regimes become progressively more unstable (and democratic transitions more likely) once income rises above $1,000 (PPP) per capita. When per capita income goes above $4,000 (PPP), the likelihood of democratic transitions increases more dramatically. Few authoritarian regimes, unless they rule in oil-producing countries, can survive once per capita income hits more than $6,000 (PPP). If we apply this observation and take into account the probable effect of inflation (although the above PPP figures were calculated in constant terms), we will find that China is well into this “zone of democratic transition” because its per capita income is around $9,100 (PPP) today, comparable to the income level of South Korea and Taiwan in the mid-1980s on the eve of their democratic transitions. In another 10-15 years, its per capita income could exceed $15,000 and its urbanization rate will have risen to 60-65 percent. If the CCP has such a tough time today (in terms of deploying its manpower and financial resources) to maintain its rule, just imagine how impossible the task will become in 10-15 years’ time.