Will the CPC collapse?

By He Qinglian on March 13, 2015
Source article in Chinese: 中国未来:在“强大”与“崩溃”之间的“溃而不崩”

Recently, some American China hands have been airing their views through various channels to express their disappointment with and criticism of Xi Jinping. The wordings of these comments were the sharpest since the period immediately after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

The significance of their comments lie not in the novelty of their viewpoints—some Chinese scholars made even more profound observations a long time ago—but in the change of their attitude.

Collectively referred to as the Panda-huggers, this group of China hands have always held the view that the US-China relationships should be shaped through “contact and influence” and induce China to start democratization; they are the main supporters of a US-China strategic alliance.

Disillusionment of the Panda-huggers

What's interesting is that the problems these China hands listed have been around for a long time. Those problems were there when Xi Jinping took office and yet they were brushed aside as some helped to promote the peaceful rise of China. Now, however, as it became clear that unlike his predecessors, Xi Jinping is not governing China as pro-Beijing forces in the US hoped he would and even demonstrates intense rejection and animosity toward Western democratic politics, many China hands feel deeply disappointed.

This round of criticism began to surface in January this year. On January 29, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Michael Auslin, Resident Scholar and Director of Japanese Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Entitled the Twilight of China's Communist Party, the piece mentioned a remark made at a private gathering of diplomats by one of the most experienced American China watchers that “I can’t give you a date when it will fall, but China’s Communist Party has entered its endgame.”

Then, in mid-February, in his speech delivered at a National Committee on US-China relations symposium marking the 40th anniversary of the normalization of US-China relations, professor Jeremy A. Cohen criticized Xi Jinping as stubborn, inflexible, and expressed deep frustration with the state of human rights in China under Xi Jinping.

Cohen hoped that China would ultimately implement genuine rule of law as he understands it: restrict government powers, reduce torture, arbitary actions and censorship.

Of the various comments made, the piece penned by George Washington University professor David Shambaugh in the Wall Street Journal could be seen as an example. Shambaugh’s article, the Coming Chinese Crackup, listed five factors to support his argument: exodus of capital and emigration of the rich; the strengthening of public opinion control and oppression of political dissent and opposition in minority regions; sense of detachment among the people; pervasive corruption in the government and the military; and the serious problems of the Chinese economy that have no solution in sight.

Four of these five factors appeared a decade ago, and the signs of an economic crisis began to show back in 2009, the only thing new is “the crackdown on adversaries inside the party’, that is to say, professor Shambaugh believes that a struggle among high ranking members of the party may result in the collapse of the Communist Party. Individuals who share Shambaugh’s view include Harvard University professor Roderick MacFarquhar, who also thinks that Xi Jinping’s intense anti-corruption drive would destabilize the regime.

Anti-corruption will not destabilize the regime

The above views make perfect sense if their conclusion is that Xi Jinping would become isolated among senior party officials as a result of his campaign to fight corruption. Xi Jinping’s high profile campaign to curb graft-taking upsets the pattern of interest transfer that existed during the Hu Jintao era; and the launch of operation fox hunt around the globe cut off the escape route of corrupt officials, keeping them inside China and sealing their fate with that of the Communist Party.

Under such immense pressure, officials under Xi Jinping are no doubt having a hard time and they miss the leniency of Hu Jintao and the good old days when they could live lavish life and get handsome “additional income” .

But while officials are worried about the campaign to stem out corruption, they do not wish the Communist Party to collapse. Fully aware that the Chinese general public hate the rich and top government officials, they know that the odds of their being punished within the Party for corruption would be no greater than five percent; and yet in the event of the collapse of the CPC, the odds of their being subjected to public retribution would be 100 percent.

Hence, officials are only eager to see the end of the anti-corruption campaign so that they do not have to constantly look over their shoulders.

Although officials, being predominantly on the contact list of those China watchers alongside intellectual elites, would convey to the latter their grievance about the anti-corruption campaign; the Panda-huggers became disappointed with Xi Jinping for a different reason: Xi Jinping’s vocal rejection of Western democratic institution. Since Xi Jinping came to power, he showed no hesitation in suppressing speech, controlling the internet and putting members of moderate political opposition under arrest; He even formally announced recently a plan to step up regulation of the 6000 plus foreign NGOs in China.

Through measures like these, Xi Jinping is showing the world with increasing clarity the kind of country he seeks to turn China into: one that implements authoritarian rule, with a market economy controlled by the government, and conducts economic exchanges with other countries only.

Harvard University professor Joseph Nye recently commented that Xi Jinping does not understand what “soft power” means. Viewed from a Western perspective, Nye’s comment was perfectly correct, yet what the professor failed to grasp is that Xi Jinping has no intention to adopt the Western standard of “soft power” at all. He has his own thinking on that matter.

“State of steady deterioration without outright collapse”

Back in 2004, I pointed out that the existence of any given society rests upon four pillars: the ecological environment that serves as its foundation of survival; the moral code that regulates the conducts of its members; the survival bottom line of its members as measured by employment, or the means to live; and the smooth running of society as ensured by law and institutions. With the fourth pillar being the only one that could change and adjust in a short period, the rest would not be transformed as easily, not even decades after a change of regimes.

All these years, the Communist Party rejects political reform, overdrafts China's resources and future; and the people are atomized and lack the ability to fight against the Party. Because of these, things in China would steadily deteriorate, yet the Communist Party would remain and not collapse for a long time to come. The Communist Party during the Mao era relied on ideology and planned economy to completely control the people. After Deng Xiaoping's reform, the Party's rule came to be based on interests and ties.

Therefore, the authority the Communist Party has over society now depends on the extend of control the government has over national resources and its ability to get revenue but not on values such as the “four cardinal principles”. An interest structure like this alters the cost of change—the price of bringing about the destruction of the regime would be much greater than to make it reform. Such an understanding is shared among elites in politics, economy, intelligentsia and the middle class; however, people of these social strata do not agree on how the regime should reform.

Members of political interest groups at different levels are undoubtedly tied with the Communist Party for better or worse; as for elites in the business sector, while these people may be staunch supporters of the CPC, they are ready to jump ship and settle elsewhere (as indicated by the expansion in Chinese investment overseas, which reached 14 billion dollars in 2014); and as for intellectuals, the majority of this social stratum lacks both the wealth to emigrate and the means to protect themselves in the event of a change of regimes, and thus would basically support the current regime, yet these people would become targets of the regime as they would ask the CPC to allow certain degree of freedom of speech and of publication and to govern in a more enlightened manner.

"The Twilight of China’s Communist Party" noted a US China specialist as implying that the hope for change in China rests in the general public. Such a view is only partially accurate. It is true, of course, that some in the Chinese populace do have certain understanding of democracy and are willing to strive for democratization. Yet the number of this group of people would be no more than 200,000 (as estimated in a survey on those who care about politics a few years ago), and it is hard to ascertain how big a role these people could play, and how long it would take them to realize the goal democratization.

The ruthless reality is that the heart and mind of a greater number of the general public are with the CPC, which many count on for their livelihood, including for example, border region inhabitants in dire poverty and live on the subsidy from the (central) government as well as 150 million environmental refugees who rely on the government for their daily necessities.

Similarly, many of those jobless college graduates, whose number increases year after year, depend on the jobs offered by the government and make a living by guiding public opinion on the internet.

In addition, people aged above 60, which number takes up 15% of the Chinese population, are most worried that their pension would be gone if the CPC is no more.

For these groups of people, democracy is a dream, and their livelihood is very real.

In his piece “Sorry, America: China Is NOT Going to Collapse” to counter Shambaugh’s arguments, Chen Dingding (assistant professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau) wrote a well-made observation that “even among the most liberal Chinese, the desire for liberty and democracy quickly weakens as long as the Chinese government does a good job of tackling corruption, environmental pollution, and inequality. Democracy is seen as a means, rather than as an end.”

To put more bluntly, so long as Xi JInping manages to keep the people fed, the general public would continue to support the regime and reject those who strive for freedom and democracy.

Like I pointed out before, for a regime to collapse, it would require a combination of four factors: a domestic governing crisis (a coup, or a financial crisis), a complete breakdown of relations between the government and the people, continual violent resistant movements, and foreign invasion.

For now, foreign enemy is but a fictional idea; the chance of a coup is slim; a financial crisis exists only at local government levels and is manageable; and small-scale resistant movements, despite their frequent occurrence, are not enough to shake the CPC regime.

These factors make it impossible for the CPC to become powerful, yet until they all reach the tipping point, the state of steady deterioration without outright collapse would drag on under the authoritarian rule of the CPC.