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No Party lasts forever

By Minxin Pei
Minxin Pei

People approaching 100 are bound to be more concerned with death than younger people. But political parties celebrating their centennial, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will do on July 1, are obsessed with the idea of immortality. For parties that rule dictatorships, such optimism seems odd, as their record on longevity does not inspire confidence. The fact that no other such party in modern times has survived for a century should be cause for concern, not celebration, for China’s leaders.

One obvious reason for the relatively short lifespan of communist or authoritarian parties is that modern dictatorships dominated by one party – unlike democracies – only emerged in the 20th century. The Soviet Union, the first such dictatorship, was founded in 1922. The Kuomintang (KMT) in China, a quasi-Leninist party, came to rule the country in 1927. In Germany, the Nazis did not come to power until 1933. Almost all communist regimes in the world were established after World War II.

There is, however, a more fundamental explanation than historical simultaneity. The political environment in which dictatorial parties operate implies an existence that is far more Hobbesian – “puny, crude, and short” – than in their democratic counterparts.

One sure way for dictatorial parties to seal their end is to fight a war and lose, a fate that befell the Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists in Italy. For most, however, the farewell to power occurs in a far less dramatic (or traumatic) way.

Chinese Communist Party spreads Optimism

In non-communist regimes, long-standing and forward-looking ruling parties such as the KMT in Taiwan and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) recognized the signs of the times and initiated democratizing reforms before losing their legitimacy altogether. Although these parties were eventually voted out, they remained politically viable and later returned to power by winning competitive elections (in Taiwan in 2008 and in Mexico in 2012).

By contrast, communist regimes that tried to placate their populations with limited democratic reforms all ended up collapsing. In the former Soviet bloc, liberalizing measures in the 1980s quickly sparked revolutions that consigned the communists – and the Soviet Union itself – to the dustbin of history.

The CCP does not want to dwell on this history during the upcoming celebrations of its centennial. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his colleagues obviously want to project an image of confidence and optimism. Political grandstanding is no substitute for a survival strategy, however, and once the CCP rules out reform as too dangerous, its available options are extremely limited.

Singapore Model loses its Luster

Before Xi came to power in 2012, some Chinese leaders were looking at the Singapore model. The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the city-state continuously since 1959, seems to have it all: a near-total monopoly on power, competent leadership, superior economic performance, and reliable popular support. But the more thoroughly the CCP looked around there – and it sent tens of thousands of officials to Singapore for investigations – the less it wanted to become a giant version of the PAP. The PAP’s successful hold on power is something China’s Communists would certainly have liked to adopt, but they did not want to introduce the same methods and institutions that helped maintain the PAP’s supremacy.

Of all the institutional features that help the PAP achieve its unusual dominance, the CCP least likes Singapore’s legalized opposition parties, relatively clean elections, and rule of law. The Chinese leadership knows that these institutions, which are critical to the PAP’s success, would represent a momentous weakening of the CCP’s political monopoly if established in China.

This is perhaps why the Singapore model lost its luster in the Xi era, while the North Korean model – totalitarian political repression, a cult of personality around the supreme leader, and juche (economic self-reliance) – gained traction. China has not yet become a giant North Korea, but a series of trends over the past eight years have taken the country in that direction.

Cult of personality around Xi Jinping

At the political level, the reign of fear has returned, not only for ordinary people, but also for the CCP elites, as Xi has resumed purges under the guise of an ongoing anti-corruption campaign. Censorship is taking place on a scale not seen since the end of the Mao era, and Xi’s regime has all but eliminated space for civil society actors, including NGOs. The authorities have even clamped down on China’s unfettered private entrepreneurs with regulatory action, prosecution, and asset confiscation.

Xi also assiduously promotes the cult around his person. These days, the front page of the People’s Daily is filled with reports on Xi’s activities and his personal edicts. In the abridged history of the CCP recently published, a quarter is devoted to those eight years in which Xi has been in power, while Deng Xiaoping, the CCP’s true savior, is given only half as much space.

North Korea as a Role Model

Economically, China has not yet fully internalized the Juche ideology. But the CCP’s new five-year plan conveys a vision of technological self-sufficiency and economic security based on domestic growth. Although the party has an understandable excuse – the US strategy of economic and technological disengagement leaves it no alternative – few Western democracies will want to remain economically linked to a country that sees North Korea as its future political model.

As China’s leadership toasts the CCP’s centennial, it should ask itself whether the party is on the right track. If it is not, the CCP’s upcoming milestone could be its last.

Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Translated by Sandra Pontow.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.www.project-syndicate.org

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