On whether or not the Partystate faces imminent demise
(and the implications of that question for anyone who cares about a decent society)
Thanks to David Shambaugh for starting the latest round of debate, at least amongst China watchers, on this question.
I read his article with curiosity but was eventually disappointed: I didn’t really see any new arguments, perspectives or evidence in it. It seemed to me that the main “news” of the piece was that Shambaugh, who formerly emphasized the Partystate’s adaptability and staying power, had changed his mind. In his defense, he says he changed his mind because the Partystate has changed. (In many ways, Chris Buckley’s interview with Shambaugh in The New York Times is more incisive than Shambaugh’s initial Wall Street Journal article.) Shambaugh says that whereas the Partystate was once pragmatic, since late Hu Jintao and onward into the Xi Jinping era, it’s engaged in control-freakery that doesn’t serve it well and could even backfire.
Still, there’s a great leap between that and prognosticating the decline or downfall of the Partystate. If you’re going to make the argument that the Partystate faces imminent collapse, it seems to me you need to present a credible scenario of how that might occur. How do you go from a current situation of
· environmental degradation impacting many people’s daily lives
· general popular disgruntlement and grievance on a wide range of issues
· a “distorted” economy that cannot be reformed without political risk to the Partystate
· general material prosperity greater than ever
· more opportunities and freedoms for some than ever before
Based on Xi Jinping’s actions, one would assume he saw that, firstly, his power base in the Partystate and, secondly, the Partystate as a whole needed to exert greater control over many sectors of society. His multi-front crackdown includes campaigns to tighten control over the Partystate itself as well as the internet, media, civil society, military, universities, and the peripheries of Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
You could argue that this is really little more than “spring cleaning”, and Shambaugh himself says that the Partystate historically has gone through cycles of relaxation and tightening of control. You can also argue that what Xi is doing is what every new Partystate leader does, consolidate power. In fact, that’s what Hu Jintao spent most of his time in power doing! Xi’s just doing it at hyper-speed, and at greater risk.
If you can’t imagine a plausible scenario, a chain of events leading to the Partystate’s downfall, you can approach the matter another way by asking the question, Does the Partystate really have anything to fear in any of the areas of crackdown, or any other areas, for that matter? Let’s go down the checklist.
First, let’s remind ourselves that the Partystate is the largest, most powerful and wealthiest political machine in the world. It also has the People’s Suppression Army at its disposal. At first glance, that seems a pretty strong position from which to defend its monopoly on power.
The intra-Partystate crackdown is presumably based on the perception that the greatest threat to the Partystate is the Partystate itself. There is something behind that notion, and the above paragraph should be qualified with the reminder that the Partystate is not monolithic. The purpose of the intra-Partystate crackdown is supposedly to fight corruption. Is corruption itself really a threat to the Partystate? Yes, it is, but it is also what keeps it alive. That’s the Partystate’s catch-22. Corruption both is a mechanism of control within the Partystate and can erode the Partystate control, both within the Partystate itself and over the populace. But the Partystate has little else to ensure loyalty, given that no one believes in its official ideology. There’s the nationalism card, but that in itself won’t go very far and it can flame out of the Partystate’s control. Then there’s what’s really going on in the intra-Partystate crackdown: Xi Jinping consolidating his power. He was apparently confident that if he moved swiftly, there were no opposing factions with the power to successfully challenge him. Up to now, that appears to be the case, though he could presumably be sowing the seeds of his own downfall. Even if that’s the case, the chances of it leading the downfall of the Partystate itself are not great. In summary, the Partystate is probably its own worst enemy, but that’s not unusual in dictatorships. Essentially, what the Leninist Partystate fears is decadence. It’s not really against cadres enriching themselves but against this leading to lackadaisical vigilance and reduced capacity to control.
The military is a sub-category of the Partystate, and what’s been going on in the Partystate has been going on in the military as well; that is to say, both corruption and crackdown. The same threats that the Partystate faces within itself, it faces within the military. But unlike in other countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Thailand, there’s been no tradition of the military acting as an autonomous entity, let alone a state within a state, and so it’s hard to imagine any threat coming from within the military unless the situation elsewhere changes significantly first. Ideologically, it’s predisposed to support the Partystate, and its interests are closely aligned with those of the Partystate.
As far as the general populace is concerned, while a good many people may be disgruntled or aggrieved, the targets of their discontent tend to be local officials and their discontent, for the most part, is not expressed politically. That is to say, most people lack a political consciousness. While people might get angry about pollution or corruption or unpaid wages, there is not a widespread perception that the root cause of the many social injustices and environmental problems they encounter is the political system and that, therefore, there must be political reform. I’ve heard many say (in private), Everyone knows the Partystate is the real problem, but these tend to be politically aware people. I don’t get the impression that all that many people know that. I recently encountered a disgusted human rights worker who said, I’m sick of fighting for the freedom of people who don’t want to fight for their own freedom. In spite of all the problems they notice, a good many people consider themselves free enough, or at least freer than before. So the Partystate doesn’t appear to have too much to fear from its own people, at least for now, though that could always change. And in that sense, much of the Partystate’s crackdown seems to be preventative, meant to ensure that the general populace will remain unthreateningly docile. That’s what the crackdown on the internet, media, universities, and civil society is about. Of these, civil society is weak and unorganized (due to multiple and regular crackdowns over the years), universities haven’t uttered a peep of dissent since ’89, and the media’s always been in the Partystate’s back pocket with few exceptions. The internet is about the only place where at times there has been some modicum of freedom of expression on a variety of issues, and this is why much of the Partystate’s energy is focused on controlling it.
The Partystate faces no external threat. It likes to manipulate nationalistic sentiment, though so far it has been very careful to keep it under control. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it could start a war, but it’s a bit hard to imagine it going so far. It hasn’t been as stupid as that since Maoist times, when it got its nose bloodied invading Vietnam in 1972. The nationalism up to now has largely been rhetorical, though it has also involved more aggressive assertion of authority over disputed territory and efforts to strengthen and modernize the military. The Partystate has outstanding territorial disputes with most of its neighbors. A good many of its neighbors (Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Mongolia) hate or fear it and have gone running to the US for protection, and while the US perceives China as a security threat, as long as it remains contained, the US is content. Western democracies have capitulated ideologically — ie, the Partystate is not the “evil empire” the way the Soviet Union was. You almost never hear criticism of China’s political system coming from Western political leaders. Even public criticism of China’s human rights situation has decreased significantly. In their policies toward China, trade is far and away prioritized. Capitalism is more important than democracy for the powers that be in Western democracies. As long as there’s money to be made in/from China and China doesn’t invade anyone, there won’t be any push for political change from abroad.
That leaves the economy. A half-decade ago, I often heard, If economic growth falls below 8%, the Partystate is in trouble. Well, now it has, but the Partystate isn’t too threatened by that. Yes, there are arguably “distortions” in the economy, and the current Partystate leadership may never feel confident enough of its political control to risk the sorts of economic reforms many say are needed and even it sees as necessary. But so what? According to traditional economic indicators, China’s is still one of the healthiest economies in the world. No one else is going to replace it as the world’s sweatshop any time soon, so even if the economy has been too reliant on exports, huge trade surpluses will continue to create a buffer against any economic storms. The other buffer is that the Partystate has so much money, as it showed when it injected so much liquidity into the markets during the global economic crisis, creating of course another “distortion” in the form of property glut, but the distortions appear manageable from a macroeconomic perspective.
In summary, the Partystate at the moment faces no plausible threats.
Of course, it could still happen, the downfall, that is.
Is that something to be wished for? Yes, but also to be feared. The Partystate has invests in creating the self-fulfilling prophecy — if not for us, chaos. Indeed, “stability” vies with nationalism and economic growth in being, to a great many people, amongst the most convincing arguments for continued Partystate rule. A lot of the current crackdown’s about creating a perception of the omnipotence and invincibility of the Partystate, and, conversely, the futility of fighting it, and perhaps it has somewhat succeeded in that respect. Five or six years ago, I was constantly struck by the hyper-optimism of many civil society activists: The regime will fall in five years, ten years; it’s just a matter of time. I don’t hear that so much anymore.
The Solidarity leader and later president of Poland, Lech Walesa reflected, They’d say, What does he think he’s doing? We have 200,000 soldiers watching him here, over 1 million soldiers all over Poland watching him. We have nuclear arsenals. And he wants to topple them with leaflets?! As an opposition activist, I asked the leaders of the world — prime ministers, presidents, even monarchs — if we could beat Communism. Not one of them gave us the slightest chance. It had been drilled into all of us that only a nuclear war could change anything…. We realized how many of us there were. It wasn’t true that there were only a few of us. We began to recognize our strength…. And of course, there’s Mandela: It always seems impossible until it’s done. Dictatorships have a way of appearing omnipotent, until they don’t anymore, and the fall of many dictatorships appears to “come out of nowhere”.
I’d consider it a failure of my own imagination that I have trouble these days conjuring a convincing scenario for downfall if not for the fact that it seems others, including Shambaugh, have the same trouble. I’d advise people on the mainland pushing for a decent society to continue pushing because you never know when and how the breakthrough will come. But that’s not much of a strategy, and, anyway, apart from that, the advice doesn’t make much sense when there’s so little free space to push at the moment, the crackdown so intense. Everyone who’s not already detained is taking cover, hoping it will blow over.
The imprisonment of Xu Zhiyong marked the end of an era for the rights defense (weiquan) movement. Ever since the turn of the millennium, the thinking was, OK, let’s not even worry about political reform now — that’s a lost cause, at least for the time being. Let’s focus on making meaningful change in society, in the law, in environmental protection, in the rights of ordinary citizens, of women, of people with disabilities, of LGBT people, of people with AIDS. In so doing, we will be creating a stronger civil society as well as a culture of citizenship and awareness of rights that can act as a solid foundation when opportunities for political change arise. But the Partystate seems to have caught on to the strategy. CHRD has just reported that in 2014, it counted 966 human rights defenders detained, almost as many (1,160) as in 2013 and 2012 combined.
This is the real question: Where does it leave the society if civil society is not allowed to grow? The economy can grow, freedoms and opportunities associated with economic growth can increase, but if the Partystate continues to suppress a culture of citizenship, the society is at a dead end. As Chen Guangcheng recently said, As long as China has a one-party system, it’s not a fit place for humans to live. With no viable scenario for an imminent end to the Partystate and with the current intense crackdown, the weiquan strategy of gradual improvement is harder to buy into, people become less enthused by it — what’s the point? It may be the case that the crackdown will pass and the Partystate’s grip will loosen again, but even so, it has smashed so much, and being arbitrary, there’s nothing to say it won’t do so again in the future.
Ironically, it’s in this sense that the Partystate could seal its own fate, and maybe here, my view does not differ so greatly from Shambaugh’s, though he’s looking from above, I from below. To the extent that the Partystate has in recent decades allowed some outlets and safety valves for discontent, some room for citizen initiative, even if arbitrarily, sporadically, inconsistently, that has constituted part of what Shambaugh considers its adaptability. Without that, what could occur? The Partystate could continue indefinitely, but what kind of society would it rule?
I just hope that if enough people say, like Shambaugh, the Partystate will end, that will help to bring it about. If anything, the crackdown leaves the future open.