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Some of the CCP adaptations were also the result of lessons learned from other authoritarian regimes. As David Shambaugh has observed, some of the CCP’s new policies and procedures were developed in response to systematic study of postcommunist and non-communist Party states. The CCP proactively attempted to “reform and rebuild itself institutionally – thereby sustaining its political legitimacy and power.”13 According to Alice Miller, “the pattern of Hu Jintao’s leadership as first among equals suggests that they have managed to avoid a dictatorship as well as prevent the gerontocratic stagnation that the Soviet leadership suffered by the early 1980s because it failed to address the same issue.”14 Is the Chinese authoritarian system resilient? Insights from liberal PRC thinkers To assume that the CCP’s resilient authoritarianism will allow the Party leadership to weather political storms in the years and decades to come, however, is to take the authoritarian resilience thesis too far. Richard McGregor, former Beijing bureau chief of the Financial Times and the author of the oft-cited book The Party, regarded the perception that “the Party can’t rule forever” as one of the “five myths about the Chinese Communist Party.”15 In his words, “Yes it can. Or at least for the foreseeable future.”16 Ironically, CCP official directives are often less optimistic about the Party’s capacity to govern and its non-democratic resilience. In September 2009, the

footnote continued

made this statement at the fourth plenary session of the 11th National People’s Congress held in Beijing on 11 March 2011. See Zhongguo xinwen wang, posted on 11 March 2011. http://www.china.com.cn/ 2011/2011-03/11/content_22114099.htm.

13 Shambaugh 2008, 9.

14 Miller 2008b, 77.

15 McGregor 2011. For the mentioned book, see McGregor 2010.

16 McGregor 2011.

The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 Fourth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the CCP called for the promotion of democracy within the Party and an intensification of the anti-corruption drive within the leadership. According to the directives adopted at the meeting, many problems internal to the CCP were exacerbated by new domestic and international circumstances and “are severely weakening the Party’s creativity, unity and effectiveness in dealing with these problems.”17 Therefore, careful management of the Party “has never been so arduous and urgent.”18 The directives particularly stress the importance of intra-Party democracy, describing it as the “lifeblood of the Party” (dang de shengming 党的生命).19 More recently, the People’s Daily, the Chinese official propaganda organ, issued an editorial on the 91st anniversary of the founding of the CCP that called for greater efforts to overcome four main crises confronting the Party, namely, “slacking spirit, lack of capacity, distance from the masses, and rampant corruption.”20 It should be noted that for liberal CCP leaders like Wen Jiabao 温家宝, Li Yuanchao 李源潮, Wang Yang 汪洋 and their advisors, intra-Party democracy is only a means, not the end, of fulfilling China’s democratic aspirations. On many occasions, Wen, Li and Wang have argued explicitly that democracy reflects universal values and should be the shared aspiration of the Chinese people. In an interview with the Chinese media, Yu Keping 俞可平, a distinguished CCP theoretician, argued that it would be a grave mistake to assume that China only needs intra-Party democracy, instead of a truer people’s democracy (renmin minzhu 人民民主) or social democracy (shehui minzhu 社会民主), both of which would include grassroots and general democratic elections.21 For Yu, intra-Party democracy and people’s democracy are complementary.

The former is top-down or inside-out and the latter is bottom-up, but ideally the two can meet in the middle. In a strategic sense, Yu Keping and his likeminded colleagues place great importance on intra-Party democracy with the objective that it will pave the way for Chinese democracy in a broader sense.

Yu believes that China’s quest for democracy should, and eventually will, have a qualitative “breakthrough” of some sort.22 Similarly, Wang Changjiang 王长江, professor and chairman of the department of Party building at the Central Party School (CPS), recently argued that the promotion of intra-Party democracy need not be at the expense of social democracy. He cited major recent crises, such as the ethnic tensions in Tibet and 17 See People’s Daily online, 19 September 2009: http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90776/90785/6761990.


18 Ibid.

19 For the communiqué on the directives of the Fourth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, see http://cpc.people.com.cn/GB/64093/64094/10080626.html.

20 “Jingshen xiedai, nengli bu zu, tuoli qunzhong, xiaoji fubai.” Renmin ribao, 1 July 2012, 1. Also see Shijie ribao, 1 July 2012, A5.

21 Yu 2009b.

22 See http://www.hi.chinanews.com.cn/hnnew/2005-10-20/29705.html, 20 August 2008; and also Yu 2009a, 1–6.

The End of the CCP’s Resilient Authoritarianism? 601 Xinjiang and social unrest elsewhere, to highlight the urgency of developing democracy in China. In Wang’s words, “social democracy should not wait.”23 These views, expressed by the liberal scholars in the CCP establishment, differ profoundly from Richard McGregor’s generalization that the Chinese people and leaders have no interest in democracy. McGregor recently stated: “The idea that China would one day become a democracy was always a Western notion, born of our theories about how political systems evolve. Yet all evidence so far suggests these theories are wrong.”24 McGregor’s view is also incompatible with recent public opinion surveys in China. The English edition of Global Times (a branch of the official People’s Daily) reported that its research centre recently conducted a survey of 1,010 people in seven Chinese cities and found that 63.6 per cent of respondents did not oppose adopting Western-style democracy in China.25 Zi Zhongyun 资中筠, a distinguished scholar and former director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), apparently disagreed with both McGregor and conservative hardliners in the CCP leadership. In her recently edited book, she bluntly challenged CCP officials who have spread the false notions that democracy is not suitable for the Chinese people and that universal values are nothing but a Western conspiracy against China.26 She used the term “obscurantism” (mengmeizhuyi 蒙昧注义) to describe the efforts on the part of those opposed to democratic change to mislead the Chinese public. She particularly warned of the danger of nationalism – the tendency to excuse injustice in society in the name of the state interests.27 Zi observed that in every crucial moment of the century-long Chinese movement for democracy and constitutionalism, conservatives have always drawn on the so-called “Chinese essence” and patriotism to resist Western influence and China’s political transformation.28 One should note that Yu Keping, Wang Changjiang, and Zi Zhongyun are all CCP members who are part of the Chinese political establishment. None of them is a political dissident or someone who favours a radical bottom-up political uprising, although all three seem to be concerned about the lack of real political reform in recent years. Yet even these liberal thinkers within the Party have been pushing hard for democracy, the rule of law and human rights in China, which they regard as universal values rather than as mere Western ideas. They are no admirers of authoritarian resilience.

One can argue that if a political system is really resilient, it should always be open to new ideas and new experiments, as one change will lead to another.

23 Wang 2009.

24 McGregor 2011.

25 Also 49.4 % of people expected that China would have a revolution if the leadership fails to pursue real political reforms and only 8.5 % believed that revolution is impossible. Quoted from Shijie ribao, 15 March 2012, A12.

26 Zi 2011, 171.

27 Ibid., 173.

28 Ibid., 22.

The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 Otherwise, it should be considered a stagnant system. Some Western scholars have also rejected the authoritarian resilience thesis. Richard Baum, for example, has argued that democracy is the political system most responsive to emergent social forces, and thus will emerge victorious in China as well as in many other parts of the world.29 Is Chinese political institutionalization effective and sustainable?

More specifically, the authoritarian resilience thesis has apparently become increasingly problematic in the Chinese context. In his analysis of why the CCP has been able to remain in power since the 1989 Tiananmen incident, Andrew Nathan outlined four important institutional developments in the

Chinese political system:

1) the increasingly norm-bound nature of its succession politics;

2) the increase in meritocratic, as opposed to factional, considerations in the promotion of political elites;

3) the differentiation and functional specialization of institutions within the regime; and

4) the establishment of institutions for political participation that strengthen the CCP’s legitimacy among the public at large.30 All of these institutional mechanisms have been on the agenda of the CCP leadership. Some have already affected the political behaviour of leaders and changed the game of Chinese elite politics over the past decade or so. But one can also argue that for now none of them has been very effective in making the system more resilient.

Regarding Nathan’s first point, it is true that some institutional rules and norms have developed over the past two decades, such as term limits and age requirements for retirement. They not only generate a sense of increased consistency and fairness in the selection of leaders, but also speed up the circulation of the Chinese political elite. Some of yesterday’s solutions, however, are becoming today’s problems. One of the most important phenomena in present-day China is the fact that many retired leaders have become increasingly outspoken when it comes to criticizing the policies adopted by the current leadership. This is a healthy political development that has led Chinese politics to become more transparent and more pluralistic, but it is also very politically sensitive for a country that has placed such a high priority on harmony and stability. While retired leaders’ criticisms may reflect their genuine consciousness about the need for sound policies at this crucial moment in China’s development, they can also be seen as a way that retired leaders express their personal dissatisfaction and anger.

–  –  –

Due to term and age limits, many capable leaders in good health have had to step down in their late 50s. Some of them later pursued business activities (xiahai 下海) after retirement, and some seized this “last opportunity” to use political power for personal gain or other malfeasance, known in China as “the age 59 phenomenon” (wushijiu sui xianxiang 五十九岁现象).31 As a result of the strict implementation of institutional regulations and norms over the past two decades, there has been a significant increase in the number of retired leaders, and they have become an important political force in their own right. Unless the CCP authorities adopt more electoral mechanisms in the selection of senior leaders, the issues of age discrimination and the political resentment of retired leaders will likely become increasingly acute.

Prior to the Bo Xilai crisis, many analysts believed that Chinese political institutionalization had developed well enough to make the upcoming leadership succession at the 18th Party Congress as smooth and orderly as the one in 2002. The most notable recent example is a book published by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a businessman who has since become a biographer of the PRC’s senior leaders. Through extensive interviews with many rising stars of the so-called fifth generation of PRC leaders, Kuhn offered nothing but praise for their talents, wisdom and vision.32 Kuhn and other like-minded overseas analysts have overlooked the CCP’s deficiencies – or more precisely, the stagnancy of the authoritarian system – when it comes to selecting its national leaders. The importance of the Bo Xilai episode was, to a great extent, the fact that he aggressively and unprecedentedly campaigned to obtain a seat in the next Politburo Standing Committee.

While Bo has been purged possibly for his alleged crimes and his “violation of party rules,” until a more legitimate mechanism to select leaders is implemented these problems will continue to undermine the leadership unity and the Party’s governance capacity.

With respect to intra-Party checks and balances as a whole, Chinese leadership politics has indeed undergone a process of increasing institutionalization over the past decade, as Alice Miller has observed.33 My study of the possible emergence of bipartisanship within the upper echelons of the CCP also focused on new norms and practices in Chinese elite politics.34 It is important to recognize, however, that newly developed institutional experiments can either fail or lead to further and greater changes if the system is genuinely resilient.

Nathan’s second point about meritocracy in the formation of the Chinese leadership might resonate well in the West. In many cases, political leaders in Western democracies are not well prepared, educationally or professionally, before being elected to office. Relatively speaking, Chinese leaders have been well educated, which was especially true in the case of the third generation of 31 Many of the senior level leaders who were purged on corruption charges had begun to engage in bribery, embezzlement, and other illegal activities at the age of 59 – the year before their retirement.

32 Kuhn 2010.

33 Miller 2008a.

34 For a detailed discussion of the origin of the new norms and practices, see Li 2005.

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