Dr. Minxin Pei

The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck sat down with world renowned China scholar Dr. Minxin Pei to discuss Bo Xilai, China’s economic future, nationalism, and what the future may hold for the People’s Republic.

As you know, last week China announced Bo Xilai’s indictment and expulsion from the CCP. Many have cited the Chinese leadership’s lingering disagreement over how to handle Bo as the reason there hasn’t been a more active response to China’s slowing economy. Do you anticipate the decision on Bo’s fate paving the way for more aggressive measures to stimulate the economy, or do you see other factors like the problems associated with the 2007-2008 stimulus as constraining the leadership’s options this time around?

I do not believe that disagreements at the top over what to do with Bo were responsible for the indecisiveness in the economic realm, although they do appear to have caused a month-long delay in announcing the start date of the 18th Party Congress.  If my assessment is correct, having dealt with Bo will not lead to something like a stimulus package.  Reviving growth is a much tougher policy challenge and involves a different type of politicking.  Given the negative legacy of the last stimulus package (massive wasteful investments, a real estate bubble, and a build-up of non-performing loans in banks), I doubt sensible policymakers in Beijing have the stomach for a repeat.

In your most recent piece on The Diplomat you noted that China has passed the upper range of the level of economic development that Samuel Huntington and other political scientists have identified as the point where other non-democratic regimes have proven unsustainable. In your opinion, how has the CCP thus far been able to defy the fate that has befallen so many other non-democratic regimes? Why do you believe the Party’s luck is likely to run out soon?

In the post-Tiananmen era, during which China entered the “transition zone” as measured by per capita income, the party adopted several measures to survive, with varying degrees of success and effectiveness. Obviously, delivering rapid growth was essential.  Co-opting social elites was a complementary strategy. Adopting more targeted repression to decapitate political opposition worked well for a while.  Cultivating nationalism was another factor.  But these measures have become decreasingly effective.

Growth is slowing down, but that’s not the worst part.  Because inequity and corruption (interrelated) have become worse (at least that’s the public perception), they offset the positive political effects of high growth.  Co-opting social elites is unsustainable because China is producing too many for the party to co-opt (think of this number: 7 million college graduates a year; only one million are admitted into the party annually). Targeted repression works less effectively when too many people are resisting authoritarian rule (again, think of the number of riots and collective protests — they are approaching 180,000 a year now, a manifold increase since the early 1990’s). The costs of repression are spiraling out of control.  Fanning nationalism can be dangerous since it opens the door for anti-regime elements to use nationalism against the party (for example, Beijing’s policy towards Japan and the U.S. is criticized as too soft).  So when you look at these trends, you will have to conclude that the party may need to think of a different playbook for the next decade.  I honestly cannot think of any innovative measures for the party to adopt.

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In that same article you mention that the CCP has thoroughly studied the Soviet Union’s fate, a point many others have discussed. However, as you also point out, parties that held monopolies on power in other countries have decided to willingly embrace democratic transitions and subsequently went on to regain office through contested elections. To what extent do you believe the CCP (or some factions in it) have studied cases like the Kuomintang in Taiwan and the PRI in Mexico as potential models for them to emulate?

I am sure the Communist Party has also studied the Kuomintang in Taiwan.  I doubt, however, that they have seriously looked into the PRI of Mexico.  For the sake of argument though, let’s assume they have.  But different people in the party draw different conclusions from these two cases.  Those who want to maintain one-party rule indefinitely would learn the opposite lessons: what not to do to lose power.  The lessons they draw must be anti-democratization in nature.  On the opposite end, forward-looking elements in the party may draw the right lessons, the type I mentioned in my last article in The Diplomat.  The most important one is that the sooner they move toward a more democratic system, the better-off they will be.

Remaining on the same topic, in many political uprisings, most recently those in the Arab world, the success of the movements often times depended on the decisions of the military. China’s leaders invest a lot in retaining the loyalty of the PLA and internal security forces, which has become more difficult as its more contemporary political leaders have lacked the military backgrounds that the initial Revolutionary leaders had. To what extent do you believe the CCP could rely on the PLA and other security forces should an uprising occur? Put differently, do you envision the PLA acting more like Egypt’s military or Syria’s military, or something in between?

You have raised the most critical and fascinating question regarding the survivability of a one-party regime such as the CCP.  In a crisis situation, the loyalty of the military (not the security forces such as the secret police or the anti-riot police, because they simply do not have the numbers to deal with a mass uprising or sustained nationwide mass protests, as in 1989) determines the regime’s fate.  As to whether the PLA will again come to the party’s rescue should such a crisis occur in the future, frankly the current Chinese leaders themselves have no idea.  They simply don’t want to get to that point.

My own speculation is that, should such a crisis occur — sustained nationwide mass demonstrations with millions of participants from a broad range of social groups (again, akin to 1989), the PLA would be unlikely to intervene.  I doubt whether the top leaders would be able to order the PLA to fire.  The reasoning is this:  should something trigger a crisis of such proportion, there must be a leadership split at the top, just as there was in 1989.  Giving the order to shoot would take time in the first place, thus worsening the crisis.  In addition, Deng Xiaoping was a man who was capable of making very difficult and gutsy decisions.  But even Deng took weeks to give the troops the order to crack down on the protestors.  We need to ask whether Chinese leaders today are as tough as Deng.

Finally, the PLA commanders will have to consider the military’s own interest.  Last time, it was very reluctant to get involved, and has regretted its intervention ever since.  When you look more generally at the collapse of various authoritarian regimes in the last forty years, in nearly every case (except Syria) the military refused to shoot to rescue a regime thoroughly rejected by the people. All this is to say that should another Tiananmen take place, the result would not be similar to that of 1989.