The CCP’s liabilities are well known. These include an antiquated political identity, cumbersome ideology, and widespread disenchantment with Marxism among the public (and among more than a few party members). CCP-led government has failed to provide adequate services, ensure rule of law, and has long tolerated corruption, malfeasance, and widening inequality. Many of these vulnerabilities have persisted for years, and some have worsened over time.
The party’s advantages are less often discussed, but these bear reviewing if one is to evaluate the viability of CCP rule. One of the most overlooked, but important, assets is a lack of any credible alternative. The party’s repressive politics prevent the formation of potential candidates, so the alternative to CCP rule for now is anarchy. For a country still traumatized by its historic experience with national breakdown, this grants the party no small advantage. To truly imperil its authority, the CCP would need to behave in so damaging a manner as to make the certainty of political chaos and economic collapse preferable to the continuation of CCP rule. A party that attempted to return to extreme Mao-era policies such as the catastrophic Great Leap Forward could perhaps meet that threshold. But despite the numerous superficial comparisons in Western media, little about the current administration policy agenda resembles classic Maoism.
The second major political advantage lies in improvements to the party’s effectiveness in recent years. In a major paradigm shift, the CCP redefined itself as a “governing party” whose primary responsibility rests in addressing the myriad economic, political, cultural, ecological, and social welfare demands of the people. It has carried out ideological and political reforms to improve its competence and effectiveness accordingly. The Xi administration has refined, but upheld, the focus on increasing the nation’s standard of living and realizing national revitalization, objectives embodied in the vision of the “Chinese dream.” Although the party has rightly come in for criticism for moving slowly and inadequately on these issues, the policy agenda nevertheless appears to resonate with the majority of Chinese citizens. Independent polls consistently show that the party has in recent years enjoyed surprisingly strong public support.
When weighing the party’s political liabilities against its assets, therefore, the evidence suggests that the CCP faces little danger of imminent collapse. Improvements to its cohesion, competence, and responsiveness, combined with a policy agenda that resonates with most Chinese and the lack of a compelling alternative outweigh the persistent political liabilities. The party’s overall political stability throughout the 2000s, despite massive political unrest generated by breakneck economic growth, underscores this point.
The Insecure CCP
If the party does indeed a measure of political support and security, why does it behave in so insecure a manner? This is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of CCP behavior today and a major driver of speculation about the possibilities of political exhaustion and collapse.
There is no question that China is experiencing tumult of a degree unusual even for a country habituated to pervasive discontent. Amid the unrelenting anti-corruption drive, officials throughout the country appear to be operating in an atmosphere of pervasive fear and distrust. The intensifying political crackdown against critics, liberal thinkers, and supposedly pernicious, malignant Western influences evoke the paranoid witch-hunts of the Mao era. The oppressive atmosphere and political insecurity (not to mention choking pollution and problems such as toxic water and food) have motivated an astonishing number of China’s elite to seek a way out of the country.
While it is tempting to read such behavior as symptomatic of a desperate regime fending off the inevitable, there are reasons to doubt such an interpretation. For one, signs of systemic breakdown are hard to find. There is little evidence of the open political warfare that has typified previous periods of political weakness and disarray. For now, at least, the central leadership appears united behind Xi’s policy agenda. The economy continues to grow, with PRC officials anticipating an annual rate at a slowing, but still healthy, 7 percent. Government policy and operations continue without the kinds of abnormal interruptions or breakdowns that one would expect of a nation in serious crisis.
A more plausible reading is that China’s leadership is determined to do whatever it takes to achieve national development and establish the conditions for long-term rule. The CCP aims to do this primarily by undertaking political reforms to improve the effectiveness and competence of government administration and by overseeing the sustained growth that can enable a steady increase in the standard of living. These objectives are so important to the party’s long-term survival that the Xi administration has shown a willingness to crush whomever gets in the way, regardless of political party affiliation.
The severity of the myriad challenges impeding the realization of these policy objectives deserves emphasis. The old export- and investment-driven model of growth that powered China’s rise for three decades has exhausted itself. Rebalancing the economy to accommodate a greater role for consumer-driven growth remains a politically contentious process that has historically proven extremely difficult and destabilizing for any country. China also continues to face persistent problems of pollution, injustice, corruption, adverse demographics, and other difficulties. Party leaders increasingly recognize that progress on any single issue depends on progress on all issues. A more stable model of economic growth depends on a greater reliance on markets, law-abiding government, and the spending power of educated consumers who will expect more of government. Improvements to the quality of government services, meanwhile, depend in part on access to resources that can only come from sustained growth. Nor can China’s leaders focus exclusively on domestic policy to address these issues. Deep integration with the global economy means domestic growth and stability depends in part on the safeguarding of distant developmental interests and a restructuring of the Asia-Pacific region’s political economy.
The centralization of power and focus on structural, top-down reforms that have defined the policy agenda of the Xi administration reflect a realistic recognition of the complexity and magnitude of the problems confronting the nation. The Central Leading Group for the Deepening of Comprehensive Reform, National Security Commission, and similar central leading groups design and oversee the systemic policies needed to maintain long-term growth and improve the government’s operations. Many officials and powerful interests stand to lose from these reforms. The anti-corruption campaign, political crackdown on potential critics, and destruction of the careers of thousands of party officials reflects a ruthlessly pragmatic calculation that the sacrifice many party members is a worthwhile price to pay for the greater gains of long term political stability that would come from successful reform.
Perhaps it is not coincidental that predictions of the party’s impending collapse have traditionally surged at major inflection points in the history of the PRC. The last major wave of pessimism occurred at the turn of the century, when China also faced economic slowdown, political demoralization, widespread unrest, and bitter factional infighting. The symptoms may have been correctly perceived, but the prognosis proved faulty. The party’s adaptation and resilience surprised observers and disproved the gloomy predictions. China has similarly reached a key inflection point, one in which the policy challenges possibly surpass those of the turn of the century.
Beijing will continue to face massive political, economic, ecological, and other challenges. The party could well fail to carry out needed reforms and ultimately collapse at some point. But with China on the cusp of achieving a centuries-long ambition of national revitalization, observers would be well served to exercise caution in once again assuming the nation’s leadership and people would so readily scuttle such an historic opportunity in favor of a return to the humiliations and agonies of national dissolution that the country has struggled for so long to escape.
Tim Heath is a Senior Defense and International Analyst at the RAND Corporation. Mr. Heath has over fifteen years of experience as a China analyst in the US government. He is the author of the book, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation, published by Ashgate (2014).