Michael Auslin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, recently wrote a commentary titled “The Twilight of China’s Communist Party,” which was published in the Wall Street Journal. The author quoted “one of America’s most experienced China watchers” as saying “the CCP has entered its endgame” and added the claim that “No one contradicts his statement, instead there is general agreement.” This view actually touches upon a long-running discussion: Will China’s way of development lead to a dead end? Or will the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) re-invigorate itself by continuing to blaze the trail of modernization that began in the late 1970s?
Certainly China faces some big problems: CCP unity vs. factional divergences, economic miracles vs. widening wealth gap, social harmony vs. disruptive unrest. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao once complained that ruling the Party was like sitting atop a volcano. More recently, dangerous cracks have begun to appear in the uppermost echelon of China’s political apparatus as President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has become ever tougher. So far, 180,000 cadres have been “disciplined,” yet that is just the tip of an iceberg of rampant corruption that has made the CCP’s legitimacy more vulnerable. Cynicism is at an all-time high and morale in officialdom never been lower. Wealth is being transferred offshore, along with spouses and children – a desperate move by culpable party and government officials to avoid the clutches of anti-graft investigators.
Yet I firmly believe these shortcomings will not by themselves ring the death knell of the CCP nor trigger the collapse of the country’s so-called ‘’socialist system with Chinese characteristics.’’ My reasons are as follows.
By exploiting the advantages of capitalism to the utmost degree, China has for three consecutive decades had the fastest growing economy in the world. Its GDP is now that of Germany, Italy and France combined, and China is forecast to soon overtake the U. S. as the biggest economy in the world. Meanwhile, the renminbi has established itself as one of the three most widely used currencies for global payments.
How was China able to achieve these jaw-dropping outcomes? In 2004, Joshua Cooper Ramo, a research fellow at Kissinger Associates, coined the term “Beijing Consensus” (also known as the “China Model”), to which he attributed China’s double-digit GDP growth over more than 30 years. By offering an alternative to the Washington Consensus, the China Model has now firmly established itself in the mainstream political lexicon, epitomizing phenomenal economic growth and increasing diplomatic assertiveness on the world stage.
Over the years, while the Washington Consensus indulged in complacency, the Beijing Consensus was committed to innovation and constant experimentation. If the highest virtue of the executive is efficiency, the CCP has truly done a good job, particularly in the economy and people’s livelihoods. Meanwhile, the White House, supposedly the most powerful government entity in the world, has found itself pushed by the domestic political opposition to the edge of a “fiscal cliff,” with government operations embarrassingly hanging by a thread.
Some pundits maintain, with some justification, that there is no way any other country can copy the Chinese way of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” unless they can build a mighty and highly mobilizing political party like the CCP. With 80 million members from all sectors of society, the CCP has effectively complete control of all political resources of China. It’s unimaginable that any other country could create a political party of such magnitude and widespread influence.
One-party rule certainly has its merits, particularly in the sphere of administrative efficiency, and American-style democracy its flaws, particularly when the opposition chooses to abuse its right of dissent to disrupt implementation of government programs.
A case in point is Singapore. With a stiff case of benign dictatorship or so-called “guided democracy,” the city-state has become the envy of others in the region for its efficiency. In contrast, the Philippines – once dubbed “Asia’s showcase of democracy” – is now lagging far behind its Asian peers as the Manila government is frequently paralyzed by petty politics, just like Capitol Hill in recent times.
China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was perhaps the first to define China’s unique development path. On July 18, 1981, he told a visiting Hong Kong media delegation, “I think there are more than 100 kinds of socialism in the world; there is no restriction. China will build socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Indeed, there is no single perfect solution to all of society’s ills. The only true path to success is to adopt whichever best suits a given environment. American political economist Francis Fukuyama once convincingly argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free market capitalism of the West and its lifestyle marked the end of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and would become the final form of human government. Yet he recently declared America was “in decay,” noting “steady deterioration in the overall quality of American government,” and that the power balance had become a vetocracy – a virtual paralysis of effective governance.
In contrast, Xi seems confident about the Chinese way of governance, at least for the time being. He often cites the folksy Chinese metaphor, “You know if the shoe fits only after you put it on yourself.” In other words – whether a certain path of development is right for a country will ultimately depend on its people’s expectations. Needless to say, this differs among countries.
Part of Xi’s strategy is to renovate the Party so that it convincingly serves the Chinese people’s wellbeing – not just by its words but by deeds – thereby bolstering its legitimacy. The CCP acquired legitimacy as the ruling party by toppling the “three big mountains” – imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism – and promising a brand-new society. Today, however, more than six decades after the founding of the PRC, the political dividends of revolution are long gone. The party’s legitimacy now rests on delivering on its promise of the “Chinese dream.” Xi is likely to take more steps to advance economic democratization and broaden the base of beneficiaries to defuse simmering tensions, rather than using an iron fist to clamp down on large-scale social unrest as did former security czar Zhou Yong-kang.
A classic theory of democracy is that authoritarian-led development elsewhere has typically lasted two or three decades before heading into democratic transition, once per capita incomes reach a certain level. According to this argument, China is inevitably heading in the same direction. However, the ancient Oriental kingdom – a society in which livelihoods always outweighed ideals like democracy – may well prove to be the exception.
So long as the CCP leadership delivers the “substantive outcomes” as described by Fukuyama, Chinese society may look like a bullet train driven with steely authority through any proposed democratic transition, demonstrating to the world that the Western dichotomy of one-party rule vs. democracy does not apply to the Middle Kingdom. Mainlanders showed little enthusiasm or sympathy during the 79-day Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous enclave whose sovereignty was returned to China after 156 years of British colonial rule. This suggests that they think differently about democracy, and are inclined to the idea of benevolent authoritarianism, which is part of a Confucian heritage combining hierarchy and collectivism that existed throughout Imperial times.
CCP propaganda claims that China decided on socialism with Chinese characteristics as the most practical option. This was not a random decision, but a thoughtful choice after experimenting with other forms of governance, including constitutional monarchy, Imperial restoration, and a multi-party parliamentary system. While there may be some benefits in each, anyone familiar with China’s history knows that it has had a long, tortured past, suffering foreign invasions, with millions of lives lost. When the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the autocratic monarchy that had ruled for centuries, a democratic Republic of China was established in 1911. Nationwide “genuine universal suffrage” was introduced in 1913. Qualified voters were men over the age of 21 who were educated or owned property. They voted for people who then picked delegates for the two-house National Assembly. But the system soon crumbled after its president, Yuan Shikai, declared himself emperor in 1915.
You can disagree with the official rhetoric. But one thing is certain: The arduous and frustrating search for a political path that suits China has been matched in few other places in the world.
For years, many pundits called China’s unique socialist system “one party rule.” This is not entirely accurate, because instead of a multi-party system, China has chosen a “multi-party cooperation system” under which the CCP takes the leading role. I am not arguing that this arrangement is a perfect formula for governance. But think about this: If the current workable system was swept away, the direction China would subsequently take would be a very big question. Considering its huge size and its 1.4 billion people, perhaps the question would be too big for China and the rest of the word to handle.
Dr. Bob Lee is Director of the Editorial Department, Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief, and Chief Writer of China Daily, Asia Pacific. He has a PhD in political science from the School of Governance, Peking University. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of China Daily.