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The coming crisis of China’s one-party regime

Posted By on September 24, 2019 @ 11:00

On 1 October, to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, President Xi Jinping will deliver a speech that unreservedly celebrates the Chinese Communist Party’s record since 1949. But, despite Xi’s apparent confidence and optimism, the CCP’s rank and file are increasingly concerned about the regime’s future prospects—with good reason.

In 2012, when Xi took the reins of the CCP, he promised that the party would strive to deliver great successes in advance of two upcoming centennials, marking the founding of the CCP in 1921 and the PRC in 1949. But a persistent economic slowdown and rising tensions with the United States will likely sour the CCP’s mood during the 2021 celebrations. And the one-party regime may not even survive until 2049.

While there’s technically no time limit on dictatorship, the CCP is approaching the longevity frontier for one-party regimes. Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party retained power for 71 years (1929–2000); the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ruled for 74 years (1917–1991); and Taiwan’s Kuomintang held on for 73 years (from 1927 to 1949 on the mainland and from 1949 to 2000 in Taiwan). The North Korean regime, a Stalinist family dynasty that has ruled for 71 years, is China’s only contemporary competition.

But historical patterns aren’t the only reason the CCP has to be worried. The conditions that enabled the regime to recover from the self-inflicted disasters of Maoism and to prosper over the past four decades have largely been replaced by a less favourable—and in some senses more hostile—environment.

The greatest threat to the party’s long-term survival lies in the unfolding cold war with the US. During most of the post-Mao era, China’s leaders kept a low profile on the international stage, painstakingly avoiding conflict while building strength at home. But by 2010, China had become an economic powerhouse, pursuing an increasingly muscular foreign policy. That drew the ire of the US, which began gradually to shift from a policy of engagement towards the confrontational approach evident today.

With its superior military capabilities, technology, economic efficiency and alliance networks (which remain robust, despite President Donald Trump’s destructive leadership), the US is far more likely to prevail in the Sino-American cold war than China. Though an American victory could be Pyrrhic, it would more than likely seal the CCP’s fate.

The party also faces strong economic headwinds. The so-called Chinese miracle was fuelled by a large and youthful labour force, rapid urbanisation, large-scale infrastructure investment, market liberalisation and globalisation—all factors that have either diminished or disappeared.

Radical reforms—in particular, the privatisation of inefficient state-owned enterprises and the end of neo-mercantilist trading practices—could sustain growth. But, despite paying lip service to further market reforms, the CCP has been reluctant to implement them, instead clinging to policies that favour state-owned entities at the expense of private entrepreneurs. Because the state-owned sector forms the economic foundation of one-party rule, the prospect that CCP leaders will suddenly embrace radical economic reform is dim.

Domestic political trends are similarly worrying. Under Xi, the CCP has abandoned the pragmatism, ideological flexibility and collective leadership that served it so well in the past. With the party’s neo-Maoist turn—including strict ideological conformity, rigid organisational discipline and fear-based strongman rule—the risks of catastrophic policy mistakes are rising.

To be sure, the CCP will not go down without a fight. As its grip on power weakens, it will probably attempt to stoke nationalism among its supporters, while intensifying repression of its opponents.

But this strategy cannot save China’s one-party regime. While nationalism may boost support for the CCP in the short term, its energy will eventually dissipate, especially if the party fails to deliver continued improvement in living standards. And a regime that is dependent on coercion and violence will pay dearly in the form of depressed economic activity, rising popular resistance, escalating security costs and international isolation.

This is hardly the uplifting picture Xi will present to the Chinese people on 1 October. But no amount of nationalist posturing can change the fact that the unravelling of the CCP’s rule appears closer than at any time since the end of the Mao era.

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