Birthday blues

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2011, 12:00am


The just-concluded festivities in China celebrating the 90th birthday of the Communist Party were marred by the inevitable speculations about its future. After all, like human beings, political organisations are mortal. The party may be toasting its 62 years in power, but its leaders must be aware that, to date, no one-party regime has survived for more than 74 years (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

The Chinese Communist Party's existential anxiety was most frankly expressed by no other than its current secretary general, President Hu Jintao. In his speech marking the anniversary, Hu pointed out four dangers the party faces: ideological cynicism, deteriorating capacity, separation from the masses, and corruption. As a diagnosis of the party's political malaise, Hu's words are spot on. But this only invites another question: what is the party going to do about it?

Admittedly, rejuvenating a nonagenarian political organisation is among the hardest tasks on earth. Its organisational structure and rules can be too ossified to change. Special interests that have penetrated its inner circles can be too entrenched to dislodge. Change can be too uncertain to inspire the party's leaders to gamble their own political fortune for the purported long-term collective good. Yet, the party has no choice but to embrace change - if it wants to remain a viable political force in the future. In some important ways, rejuvenating a one-party regime resembles revitalising a business monopoly. It requires a fundamental change in its mindset and the introduction of competition.

In the contemporary Chinese context, changing the party's collective mindset means unlearning the two lessons it has drawn from the Soviet collapse: first, democratising reform will accelerate the collapse of a one-party regime instead of saving it; second, economic growth can provide the political legitimacy - and ensure the survival - of such a regime.

Thus, in the two decades since the Soviet collapse, the party has faithfully adhered to a strategy that combines political repression with economic growth. Despite the huge dividends the party has reaped from this strategy, its effectiveness and relevance are decreasing. Politically, Chinese society has undergone, since Tiananmen, revolutionary changes in terms of diversity, autonomy, sophistication, access to information, and urbanisation. Repressing the people's desire for political participation is growing more costly. Economically, state-led growth is generating enormous social strains, such as rising inequality, environmental degradation, and corruption.

Meeting China's new challenges requires the party to reconsider its post-Tiananmen strategy. However, the deeply ingrained lesson from the Soviet collapse - political reform equals regime suicide - has stifled the party's collective imagination and foreclosed even limited options for making the Chinese political system more compatible with its changed socio-economic environments. Just as Deng Xiaoping called on the party to liberate its thinking in the late 1970s to launch economic reform, Chinese leaders need to change their mindset - especially about the role of competition in rejuvenating the party.

At the moment, the party faces a dilemma. On the one hand, it dreads political competition. On the other hand, the sclerotic political system appears to be unsalvageable without some form of external competitive pressure. The way forward for the party is to take a calculated gamble and introduce limited political competition.

Here the experience of Taiwan, Mexico, Singapore, and Malaysia is instructive. Before their transitions to democracy, Taiwan and Mexico had what political scientists call 'dominant-party regimes' that relied on semi-competitive elections to generate political legitimacy and force the ruling party to develop connections with key social groups (such as labour unions, business groups and farmers). In Singapore and Malaysia, such regimes have remained solidly in power.

Unlike a one-party regime, a dominant-party regime permits the existence of opposition parties, but manages to rig the rules of political competition to prevent them from gaining power. In addition, the ruling party also cultivates support among business and labour groups that enjoy a modicum of autonomy.

With the support of these key social groups, the ruling parties can win semi-competitive elections (although not without some cheating). The electoral pressures thus generated provide some discipline and accountability for the ruling elites. Most important, competition forces ruling parties to select elites that can connect with voters and win elections, not those who know only how to please their patrons.

Obviously, such a system is not fully democratic, but it would be a huge step forward compared with today's China.

There are two benefits for a one-party regime in making the transition to a dominant-party regime. The first is that such a transition will reduce the need for brutal repression because a semi-competitive political process will produce considerable legitimacy and channel the opposition into legalised political competition. The second is that, unlike one-party communist regimes, which have no hope of returning to power once overthrown, dominant-party regimes have made political comebacks even after their fall from power. In Taiwan, the Kuomintang regained the presidency in 2008. In Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party seems well-positioned to recapture power in the 2012 presidential election.

So, for the Chinese Communist Party, the party may not be over - if it acts in time.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College