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Zhang made a controversial speech in which he argued that present-day China is ruled by some incompetent and weak leaders who have led the country into a social and political crisis. “The future generation of leaders,” in his words, “will not be like that!”85 He Pin, a seasoned New York-based analyst of Chinese elite politics, is doubtful of scenarios that predict a military takeover or chaos in the country. He believes that the “possibility for chaos in China is low for four reasons: 1) there are no strong region-based military warlords; 2) with the exception of a few ethnic regions, there is an absence of major regional conflict over resources; 3) the new leadership will most likely promote the economic integration of the country; and 4) in terms of the international environment, foreign powers do not want chaos in China.”86 The fact that the Bo crisis has hit the CCP leadership more severely than it has affected the Chinese economy reflects the maturity of Chinese society and the strength of the country as a whole. China is not in decline, and is certainly not heading toward a collapse. One should not lose the big picture that China is on a historical rise, although this rise is unlikely to be strictly linear due to all of the daunting challenges – socio-economic, political, environmental, demographic and in the realm of foreign policy.
China’s upcoming transition to a more accountable, more representative and less corrupt political system, driven primarily by an on-going legitimacy crisis, 83 Ibid.
84 Qian 2012.
86 He Pin 2012, 186–87.
The End of the CCP’s Resilient Authoritarianism? 619 will not be easy. But the Chinese public’s shared perception of China’s rise on the world stage and all of the reform-era socio-economic developments that contribute to the country’s national resilience (not the CCP’s resilient authoritarianism) may make China’s political transformation different from the experiences of the former Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc communist states and the “Arab Awakening” countries.
Despite a recent slowdown in China’s breakneck economic growth, the country will likely continue to be one of the world’s fast-growing economies for the next decade and beyond due to a combination of factors. These include the country’s solid industrial foundation, its newly built world-class infrastructure, high rates of investment and savings, the continuing strong input of foreign direct investment, an impressive amount of foreign reserves, a large domestic market, human resource advantages, growing entrepreneurship and last but certainly not least the country’s commitment to transitioning toward a domestic, demand-driven, and environmentally friendly mode of economic growth.87 On top of that, the Chinese people who have created an economic miracle are unlikely to stop just at the gate of political democracy.
Final Thoughts From a broader perspective, although these three shifts of power are the cause of some tension in the governance of the country and create a sense of uncertainty, they can be considered as very encouraging and positive developments for China.
Factional checks and balances within the CCP leadership, dynamic interest groups – especially the increasingly important role of the middle class – and the widely shared perception of a rising power on the world stage and the public confidence this has engendered may all prove to be important factors in an eventual transition to democracy.
For the near future, the focus of China analysts should not only be on whether the CCP leadership uses proper legal procedures to deal with the Bo Xilai case, but also whether the leadership can seize the opportunity to reach a new consensus and seriously pursue political reforms. It is clearer today than perhaps any time during the reform era that the CCP’s “authoritarian resilience,” both conceptually and empirically, is a stagnant system because of its resistance to a democratic transition.
If the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must embrace genuine systematic democratic change in the country.
The following profound transformations need to be made. First, in addition to handling the Bo case through established legal mechanisms, a call for legal reforms – including judiciary reform, the rule of law and constitutionalism – will become very important.88 This could be a wonderful opportunity for liberal 87 For more discussion of China’s economic forecast, see Hu Angang 2011.
88 For a detailed discussion of recent public and intellectual demand for constitutionalism, see He Weifang
2012. Also see Peerenboom 2002, Li and Jordan 2009; Wishik 2012.
The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 leaders, and to a certain extent all leaders, to realize that legal reform is the best way to protect themselves in a country that still lacks the rule of law. It will take many years and even decades for China to fully build a constitutional system, but the ideological, political and legal statement that the Party should be under, rather than above, the constitution should be made sooner.
Second, the CCP should pursue bolder intra-Party elections, which could involve voting as a means of assigning leadership positions. For example, to select the members of the next Politburo Standing Committee, the CCP could put ten or eleven candidates on a ballot and have the Central Committee select nine of them, or have eight or nine candidates if the PSC changes to seven seats.
This kind of “more candidates than seats” election (cha’e xuanju 差额选举) at the top level of leadership should be institutionalized immediately to bring a muchneeded new source of legitimacy to the Party.
Third, media regulation is also in urgent need of reform. China has entered a “season of rumours,” and social media has become so powerful that Chinese authorities often shut down domestic micro-blogging services. This is not an effective way to run the country (especially when China is supposed to have an innovation-driven economy). The reason people go to social media for news is that the mainstream media does not tell them much. Thus, the way to avoid the sensationalism produced by social media is to open up the mainstream media. This is not only in the interest of liberal intellectuals, but the Chinese leaders themselves. The more these sensational stories are suppressed, the more powerful they become. Ten years of commercialization of the Chinese media have already prepared Chinese journalists to pursue freedom of press. The on-going revolutionary change in social media and telecommunications will make media freedom a necessity rather than a choice.
It would be intellectually and politically naïve to believe that Bo’s downfall will only have positive ramifications and that nothing will go wrong in China. It is worth remembering, however, that the assassination of a Taiwanese writer by agents of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party helped trigger the island’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy in the mid-1980s. Similarly, the CCP must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind. From a broader perspective, weak leaders, weak government and weak Party are not trends that are unique to China; they are common challenges in today’s world.
Welcome, China, to the 21st century!
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