Rotting from the Inside Out

Minxin Pei’s detailed analysis of the "dark side" of China’s economic miracle leads him to believe that the country’s political system is more likely to experience decay than democracy. Pei says that "[s]omeday soon, we will know whether such a flawed system can pass a stress test," such as a severe economic shock or political ...

Minxin Pei's detailed analysis of the "dark side" of China's economic miracle leads him to believe that the country's political system is more likely to experience decay than democracy. Pei says that "[s]omeday soon, we will know whether such a flawed system can pass a stress test," such as a severe economic shock or political upheaval. One might caution Pei against using phrases such as "someday soon," because inertia has the potential to carry the Communist Party for some time to come. Nevertheless, Pei is right to point to the fragility of the Chinese political system.

In the Maoist era, that system was held together by an undisputed leader, a well-disciplined and relatively uncorrupt party, and a doctrine (Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) that gave the Communists the authority to impose Mao Zedong's policies. Underpinning the whole system were the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army. But the party's discipline, selflessness, and confidence were undermined by the assaults it suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Afterward, its doctrine was effectively abandoned as part of Deng Xiaoping's reform program. As a result, in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the party proved to be politically impotent and the military had to save the day. Today, China is far richer and the party is co-opting potential opponents, but as Pei shows, corruption is greater, contempt for legal processes is widespread, and the willingness of China's citizens to protest is increasing every day. Nobody believes that President Hu Jintao could play the role of imperial ruler to hold the system together.

What could turn this "decaying" system in a more hopeful direction? The history of China's 150-year struggle with modernity suggests it may require a major shock to the ruling establishment. This first happened in the war of 1894-95, when Japan defeated China. Although the Qing dynasty had suffered defeats to the British and the French earlier in the same century, the Japanese victory was far more traumatic because Beijing thought of its island neighbors as junior partners in the great enterprise of Chinese civilization. In victory, Japan was different. It was a European-style nation state that had proved itself superior to China. The effect of this defeat was dramatic. China's leaders adopted radical reforms, Confucianism was abandoned as the state doctrine, and, in 1912, the 2,000-year-old imperial system was replaced by a republic. It was the first great revolution of the 20th century.

Minxin Pei’s detailed analysis of the "dark side" of China’s economic miracle leads him to believe that the country’s political system is more likely to experience decay than democracy. Pei says that "[s]omeday soon, we will know whether such a flawed system can pass a stress test," such as a severe economic shock or political upheaval. One might caution Pei against using phrases such as "someday soon," because inertia has the potential to carry the Communist Party for some time to come. Nevertheless, Pei is right to point to the fragility of the Chinese political system.

In the Maoist era, that system was held together by an undisputed leader, a well-disciplined and relatively uncorrupt party, and a doctrine (Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) that gave the Communists the authority to impose Mao Zedong’s policies. Underpinning the whole system were the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army. But the party’s discipline, selflessness, and confidence were undermined by the assaults it suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Afterward, its doctrine was effectively abandoned as part of Deng Xiaoping’s reform program. As a result, in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the party proved to be politically impotent and the military had to save the day. Today, China is far richer and the party is co-opting potential opponents, but as Pei shows, corruption is greater, contempt for legal processes is widespread, and the willingness of China’s citizens to protest is increasing every day. Nobody believes that President Hu Jintao could play the role of imperial ruler to hold the system together.

What could turn this "decaying" system in a more hopeful direction? The history of China’s 150-year struggle with modernity suggests it may require a major shock to the ruling establishment. This first happened in the war of 1894-95, when Japan defeated China. Although the Qing dynasty had suffered defeats to the British and the French earlier in the same century, the Japanese victory was far more traumatic because Beijing thought of its island neighbors as junior partners in the great enterprise of Chinese civilization. In victory, Japan was different. It was a European-style nation state that had proved itself superior to China. The effect of this defeat was dramatic. China’s leaders adopted radical reforms, Confucianism was abandoned as the state doctrine, and, in 1912, the 2,000-year-old imperial system was replaced by a republic. It was the first great revolution of the 20th century.

The second shock to China’s ruling elite was the decade-long Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976. When Deng and other survivors of Mao’s purges took power in 1978, they found that while Mao was plunging his country into chaos, anarchy, and bloodletting, economic miracles had blossomed throughout the rest of East Asia. The region was no longer poverty stricken, except for China. Fearful that the party could not survive without finally bringing prosperity to its people, Deng abandoned the Soviet-style socialist model in favor of economic growth by whatever capitalist means possible. Instead of shutting out the world, Deng embraced it, sending out students and inviting in corporations. But at Tiananmen in 1989, China reaped the whirlwind of two decades of change. Only the iron will and authority of Deng and his fellow gerontocrats preserved Mao’s revolution.

In this century, Hu is trying to adapt China — with its 1.3 billion citizens — to the modern world, and particularly to the information revolution, by attempting to resuscitate an ideology defined by Karl Marx in the 19th century and a system of government devised by Vladimir Lenin in the 20th century. Such a process would be nigh on impossible even without the decay Pei describes. Hu’s success is heavily dependent upon sustaining the rates of economic growth achieved in the 1980s and 1990s. That means the Chinese political system is relying on the buoyancy of the global economy. But even a healthy global economy will not protect China’s ruling elites if their internal problems are not solved.

Roderick MacFarquhar is the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and former Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University.

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