Banking on China’s democratic deficit

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.The idea that China’s one-party state will eventually implode under the strains of authoritarianism’s inherent weaknesses might seem both reassuring and obvious.

Such an eventuality, the thinking goes, would be the inevitable upshot of China’s economic modernisation and the rise of an assertive middle-class, and would stand testament to the universal appeal and applicability of liberal democratic institutions.

Yet, as I argue in Accountable Authoritarianism: Why China’s Democratic Deficit Will Last, the severe challenges that are typically cited as evidence of the impending end of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule are not a product of authoritarianism’s shortcomings, while the CCP is well placed to tackle China’s mounting institutional, social, political and environmental problems.

The scale of China’s challenges is staggering.

Corrupt CCP officials have funnelled as much as US$120 billion out of China since 1990—equivalent to China’s entire education budget from 1978 to 1998—and 143,000 government employees were convicted of graft or dereliction of duty between 2008 and 2012.

Pollution in China’s northern industrial centres is so severe that residents of China’s south live at least five years longer than their northern counterparts, while air pollution accounted for 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010.

Han Chinese-dominated CCP rule also faces a severe crisis of legitimacy: Ethnic riots in Xinjiang province left nearly 200 dead in 2009, and political and inter-communal violence claimed more than 100 lives there this northern summer. This comes as 122 Tibetans have self-immolated in a wave of protest since February 2009.

These challenges may be daunting, but they cannot be exclusively blamed on the CCP’s authoritarian one-party rule, and would probably persist even if the country democratised.

Corruption is systemic in China, but is just as pervasive in many democracies. Transparency International, for example, puts India, the world’s largest democracy, 14 places below China on its Corruption Perceptions Index.

World Health Organization data also shows that China’s pollution levels are not dissimilar to those in other developing countries, irrespective of whether they are authoritarian or democratic.

Equally, the unrest in China’s western provinces is replicated to varying degrees in numerous democracies: Basque separatism in Spain, the West Papuan independence movement in Indonesia, the Corsican National Liberation Front in France, the Tamil independence movement in Sri Lanka, and so on.

More importantly, the CCP’s pragmatic reformism shows that the authoritarian one-party state has no intention of being left flat-footed by institutional, social, political and environmental challenges.

The CCP is arguably a ‘Darwinian Leninist Party.’ As former leader Deng Xiaoping hinted, the guiding philosophy of the CCP’s authoritarianism is not communism but evolution through pragmatic reform: ‘It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.’

In 1976, when Mao Zedong died, the Chinese economy was contracting by 1.6% annually and GDP per capita was a paltry US$163. Since Deng launched China’s real Great Leap Forward by de-collectivising agricultural production and creating business-friendly special economic zones, the economy has experienced uninterrupted expansion, annual economic growth has averaged 10%, and GDP per capita has risen to more than US$5,500.

Notwithstanding the spectacular success of China’s partial embrace of capitalism, the CCP’s savvy reformism is not restricted to economic policy. Starting in the early 1980s, elections were introduced at the village level; by 1988, village leaders were charged with responsibility for fiscal management, land allocation and education; and by the mid-1990s, 90% of village leaders held their posts by virtue of popular ballots.

By giving citizens the power to install administrators capable of delaying or ineffectively enforcing unpopular measures, such as the one child policy and the forced expropriation of land, village elections provide the people with some protection from Beijing’s edicts.

Despite denouncing constitutionalism and launching thinly veiled initiatives to quash dissenting political comment with laws against spreading ‘rumours’ on social media, President Xi Jingping’s administration is set to continue pragmatic reforms.

The CCP’s crackdown on graft has been revitalised with increasingly frank official censure of corrupt party members and the creation of monitory mechanisms for citizens to report cases of impropriety, while a host of policy initiatives have been launched to curb pollution, including limiting coal consumption, reducing water and air contamination, and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads.

In 1998, US President Bill Clinton castigated Beijing on its failure to live up to liberal democratic ideals by suggesting that the regime was ‘on the wrong side of history.’ This was certainly true of the CCP’s brutal, bloody and intellectually bankrupt Maoist past.

But by pursuing a moderate reformist agenda, the CCP may yet secure its political survival and buck the trend of global democratisation.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of Accountable Authoritarianism: Why China’s Democratic Deficit Will Last. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.