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The End of the CCP's Resilient Authoritarianism? 

A Tripartite Assessment of Shifting Power in China

Cheng Li

The China Quarterly / Volume 211 / September 2012, pp 595 ­ 623

DOI: 10.1017/S0305741012000902, Published online: 08 October 2012 Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0305741012000902

How to cite this article:

Cheng Li (2012). The End of the CCP's Resilient Authoritarianism? A Tripartite  Assessment of Shifting Power in China. The China Quarterly, 211, pp 595­623  doi:10.1017/S0305741012000902 Request Permissions : Click here Downloaded from http://journals.cambridge.org/CQY, IP address: on 21 Oct 2012 The End of the CCP’s Resilient Authoritarianism? A Tripartite Assessment of Shifting Power in China* Cheng Li† Abstract This essay challenges the widely held view of the CCP’s purported “resilient authoritarianism,” which asserts that China’s one-party political system is able to enhance the state capacity to govern effectively through institutional adaptations and policy adjustments. An analysis of the recent and still unfolding Bo Xilai crisis reveals the flaws in China’s political system, including nepotism and patron–client ties in the selection of leaders, rampant corruption, the growing oligarchic power of state-owned enterprises, elites’ contempt for the law and the potential failure to broker deals between competing factions in the Party leadership. The essay argues that the CCP’s “authoritarian resilience” is a stagnant system, both conceptually and empirically, because it resists much-needed democratic changes in the country. The problems of the resilient authoritarianism thesis is traceable to the monolithic conceptualizing of China – the failure to appreciate seemingly paradoxical transformative trends in the country, which this essay characterizes as three paralleled developments, namely, 1) weak leaders, strong factions; 2) weak government, strong interest groups; and 3) weak Party, strong country. One should not confuse China’s national resilience (in terms of the emerging middle class, new interest group politics, and dynamic society) with the CCP’s capacity and legitimacy to rule the country.

The essay concludes that if the CCP intends to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must abandon the notion of “authoritarian resilience” and embrace a systematic democratic transition with bold steps towards intra-Party elections, judicial independence and a gradual opening of the mainstream media.

Keywords: Chinese Communist Party; resilient authoritarianism; factional politics; intra-Party democracy; leadership transition; corruption; fifth generation * The author thanks Chris Bramall, Eve Cary, Jordan Lee and John Langdon for suggesting ways in which to clarify the article.

† Brookings. Email: cli@brookings.edu © The China Quarterly, 2012 doi:10.1017/S0305741012000902 The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 If there is one recurring mistake that the international community makes when analysing present-day China, it is to describe the world’s most populous and rapidly changing country in monolithic terms. Many commentators fail to draw a distinction between China’s ruling elite and Chinese society when they assess the current status and future trajectory of Chinese politics.1 Given that China has become increasingly pluralistic, with the arrival of many new socio-political players and an increasingly complicated decisionmaking process, inaccurate generalizations are more problematic today than ever before.

Over the past decade, overseas China analysts have tended to characterize the Chinese authoritarian political system as “resilient” and “strong.”2 According to their logic, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems to have found a sustainable way to maintain its rule over its fast-growing economy.

In the view of these foreign observers, China’s increasing national strength, growing societal diversity, and emerging intra-Party checks and balances are factors that strengthen rather than undermine CCP rule.3 In general, this perspective tends to underestimate the vulnerability of the authoritarian oneparty system. New socio-economic forces in the country pose serious challenges to the CCP’s resilient authoritarianism. Meanwhile, competing factions within the Party leadership may fail to broker the necessary deals to preserve Party unity.

Some of the fundamental flaws of the Chinese political system were on display in the spring 2012 political crisis concerning Bo Xilai 薄熙来, one of the Party’s rising stars and chief of China’s largest city, Chongqing. Official corruption, for example, is unprecedented in scope and scale in contemporary China. Ironically, Bo had been a leader known for his tough stance on corruption, having spearheaded a “smashing mafia” (dahei 打黑) campaign, but now most consider him to be a kind of “head of the mafia.” Consequently, public trust in the CCP’s leadership has perhaps fallen to its lowest point in the post-Mao era. The Party has lost the moral high ground. If the allegations are shown to be true, it seems that absolutely no moral constraints were at play in the cases of Gu Kailai 谷開來 (Bo’s wife), former Chongqing Police Chief 1 Perry Link, a long-time critic of the Chinese authorities, recently made a strong and valid critique of some American experts on China for their use of the terms “China” or “the Chinese” to “refer exclusively to elite circles” of the Chinese Communist Party. Link warned that allowing “China” to represent only a small elite “is dangerous in that it adumbrates nearly a fifth of the world’s population. It also prevents a square consideration of how long the regime will last” (2012, 27). Interestingly, Gordon Chang, another well-known critic of the CCP leadership, has continued to predict “the coming collapse of China,” while primarily referring to the potential fall of the CCP (2011). For an earlier version of his thesis, see Chang 2001.

2 David Shambaugh, for example, observed that the CCP is a “reasonably strong and resilient institution” (2008, 176). See also Nathan 2003; Miller 2008b; Miller 2009.

3 According to Andrew Nathan, “the regime’s institutional changes have so far served to consolidate rather than weaken authoritarianism” (2006, 3); see also Fewsmith 2006; Brown 2009; Dickson 2003; Dickson 2008; Tsai 2007; Yang 2004.

The End of the CCP’s Resilient Authoritarianism? 597 Wang Lijun 王立军 and Bo himself, which allegedly involved murder, assassination, torture and other abuses of power.4 Despite efforts on the part of the CCP leadership to earmark these incidents as “isolated and exceptional phenomena,” many PRC public intellectuals openly argue that rampant official corruption, especially when involving top CCP leaders’ families, exemplifies a decadent form of crony capitalism (quangui zibenzhuyi 权贵资本主义) that is more the rule than the exception in the Chinese political system.5 The Bo imbroglio is certainly not solely a reflection of his notorious egotism.6 The scandal is arguably the most serious political crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen incident and constitutes a major challenge to the legitimacy of the CCP leadership as a whole.

For the overseas China studies community, it is essential to go beyond superficial discussions of these Hollywood-like political spectacles, which in fact may obscure broader power shifts occurring behind these ostensibly unrelated events.

In stark contrast to the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, China’s economy and society have, at least until now, seen little disruption in the wake of the Bo Xilai crisis, illustrating a scenario in which the country can remain largely intact despite a series of vicious power struggles in Zhongnanhai 中南海. Some American China analysts, however, have mistaken China’s national resilience for evidence of the CCP’s governing capacity and political legitimacy. Recent debates on “why China won’t collapse” are highly misleading because one can reasonably argue that the issue of the day is whether or not the Party will survive, not the country.7 China’s political future, especially the survival of its one-party system, is a controversial issue that should be subject to more rigorous intellectual and policy debates. The notion of resilient authoritarianism, the prevailing analytical framework with which many academics in the West have studied the Chinese political system in the last decade or so, must be re-examined in the light of recent political phenomena. An empirically well-grounded and balanced assessment of the unfolding political crisis is particularly valuable today, not only because China is at a crossroads in terms of domestic development, but also because it now has more influence on the world economy and regional security than at any other time in modern history. Misperception of China’s socio-economic 4 It was widely reported in overseas Chinese media that Jiang Zemin, former general secretary of the CCP, recently commented on the Bo Xilai scandal that “Bo has crossed the bottom line of human civilization.” Sing Tao Daily, 28 May 2012.

5 For example, Zhang Ming (2012) launched a strong critique of the rampancy of official corruption by dozens of CCP top leaders in March, a few months before the foreign media began to trace “family trees” of crony capitalism among the Chinese leadership. For the CCP authorities’ effort to make the Bo case “isolated and exceptional,” see Sina News, posted on 25 May 2012, http://news.sina.com.hk/ news/1617/3/1/2673095/1.html.

6 Bo has been long famous for his political ambition (see Li 2001, 165–66). In the months preceding the crisis, Su Wei, a scholar close to Bo at the Chongqing Party School, compared Bo Xilai and Chongqing mayor Huang Qifan to former leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in comments circulated in both the Chongqing and national media. See Sina Global Newsnet, posted online on 20 September 2011 http:// dailynews.sina.com/bg/chn/chnnews/ausdaily/20110920/18402783790.html.

7 For example, see Bell 2012.

The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 conditions carries with it the risk of implementing ineffective government policies toward the PRC.

This article first presents a critical review of the main arguments for resilient authoritarianism and explains why they are inadequate in understanding Chinese politics today. It then identifies three transformative trends in the PRC. For the sake of clarity, these three developments are summarized in the form of three parallel phrases: 1) weak leaders, strong factions; 2) weak government, strong interest groups; and 3) weak Party, strong country.8 The shifting power of various constituencies in China reflects the multi-dimensional and dynamic changes underway in the country.

Resilient Authoritarianism: A Critical Review Western scholarship on the Chinese state’s resilient authoritarianism began to emerge in the mid-1990s and has become the mainstream position over the last decade. When the CCP survived the political turmoil of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, which had posed a serious legitimacy crisis, many China analysts began to appreciate the endurance and adaptability with which the Chinese leadership handled daunting challenges both at home and abroad. The political succession from Jiang Zemin 江泽民’s third generation of leadership to Hu Jintao 胡锦涛’s fourth generation, which took place at the 16th National Congress of the CCP in 2002, was remarkable for being the first time in PRC history that the CCP leadership conducted a peaceful, orderly and institutionalized transfer of power. It is quite common for overseas China analysts to view the CCP as being limber and adaptable enough to respond quickly to changes to their environment and to become better qualified and more competent with time. “The result,” as some scholars have observed, “has been to create a power system characterized by ‘authoritarian resilience.’”9 By definition, the CCP’s resilient authoritarianism refers to a one-party political system that is able to “enhance the capacity of the state to govern effectively” through institutional adaptations and policy adjustments.10 According to some analysts, the CCP’s resilient authoritarian system can successfully resist or prevent democratic demand. Not surprisingly, Party conservatives seek to reinforce the belief that “democracy is not appropriate for China,” but that a resilient authoritarian system is.11 This is evident, for example, in Chairman of the National People’s Congress Wu Bangguo 吴邦国’s recent pronouncement of the ‘five nos’ for China.”12

–  –  –

The authoritarian resilience thesis seems to hold up if one examines the change and continuity of the broad policy framework that each generation of CCP leaders has embraced over the past two decades. In his famous “southern tour” in 1992, Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 called for greater market reform and economic privatization while continuing to crackdown on political dissent. Jiang Zemin broadened the power base of the CCP by recruiting entrepreneurs and other new socio-economic players (a formulation known as the “three represents”), while launching a harsh political campaign against the Falun Gong, an emerging group of religious believers. Hu Jintao’s populist appeal for a “harmonious society” sought to reduce economic disparities and social tensions while tightening censorship over the media and police control in society, especially in ethnic minority regions. In all of these major socio-economic and political developments, the CCP’s top leaders made a calculated but far-reaching ideological and policy move in one area, but resisted political pressure in another.

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