Time to reflect

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2011, 12:00am


This year marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the Chinese Communist Party, that cataclysmic event radically altered how it governed China. Of all the foreign observers of the implosion of the Soviet Union, nobody has devoted as much attention to and tried as hard to extract lessons from the fall of Soviet communism as the Chinese Communist Party.

In retrospect, much of the party's post-1991 survival strategy can be traced, intellectually, to the lessons it drew from the Soviet collapse. Much of its success, both at home and abroad, has been the result of its subsequent strategic adaptation and tactical flexibility.

So what were the lessons party leaders learned 20 years ago?

The most important was, without doubt, that economic failure caused the Soviet rulers to lose their legitimacy and the capacity to hold their empire together. To avoid a similar failure, the party itself must focus its energy on economic performance. The effect of this epiphany was as revolutionary as it was instant. Shortly after the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin, Deng Xiaoping went on his historic tour of southern China and reignited China's economic transformation. Conservatives within the party, who resisted his economic reform in the 1980s, did not put up a fight because they knew they had lost the political battle. Without the Soviet collapse, one may argue, the re-launch of China's economic reform in 1992 would not have occurred.

In the years since, China's stunning economic growth - with its gross domestic product rising, unadjusted for inflation, from 2.18 trillion yuan in 1991 to 39.8 trillion yuan (HK$48.3 trillion) in 2010 - has bolstered the party's political legitimacy and given it enormous resources to maintain power and expand its influence abroad.

An equally critical lesson the party learned from the Soviet collapse was that a communist party would be committing political suicide if it attempted to introduce democratic reforms to gain a new source of legitimacy. The communist system is too brittle, Chinese leaders concluded, to withstand the political shocks generated by democratising reforms. Even a tiny opening in the political system could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.

The corollary of this democratisation-is-bad lesson was obvious. In the ensuing two decades, the party not only abandoned its promising liberalising initiatives begun in the 1980s (such as strengthening the National People's Congress, reforming the legal system, relaxing restrictions on civil society and experimenting with local elections), but also vigilantly suppressed the small, albeit vocal, pro-democracy community within China.

The party may have learned other important lessons (for example, never to engage in an arms race with Washington), but the twin conclusions it drew from the Soviet collapse underpinned two of the pillars of its post-Tiananmen survival strategy: promoting economic growth and maintaining political repression.

For awhile, this strategy delivered. The party successfully weathered the shocks of the Tiananmen debacle and the fall of communism in the former Soviet bloc. Sustained economic growth has raised the standard of living of most Chinese people and strengthened the party's rule. Deploying more selective and sophisticated repression, the party has effectively destroyed the pro-democracy movement.

However, recent signs suggest that the post-Tiananmen survival strategy is yielding diminishing returns. Judging by rising social tensions, popular dissatisfaction with the party's performance in delivering public service, and growing activism by ordinary citizens, the party needs to change its survival strategy because the lessons from the Soviet Union, the intellectual inspiration for its post-Tiananmen strategy, are no longer applicable to China's new social and political realities.

On the economic front, a growth model excessively focused on quantitative expansion at the expense of qualitative improvement has become politically counterproductive to the party. Instead of shoring up its legitimacy, economic growth is fuelling social tensions because it is increasing inequality, degrading the environment, creating privileged hereditary social and political elites (the so-called guan er dai and fu er dai, or second generation of officials and tycoons), and bringing the state and society increasingly in conflict with each other (particularly over property rights issues). The net result is decreasing legitimacy of the party.

Resisting democratisation has grown more costly as well. With overall social discontent brewing over quality-of-life issues, social justice and government accountability, the party has become more vulnerable to a diverse range of challenges to its authority. Today, pro-democracy activists do not need to rally disgruntled citizens with lofty appeals to democratic values. They can embarrass and challenge the party on issues of education, environmental protection, housing prices, corruption, public safety and health care.

Even without the instigation of political activists, ordinary citizens are increasingly testing the limits of the party's tolerance by staging collective petitions and protests, and by venting their frustration on the internet, which has emerged, despite the party's censorship, as a powerful public forum.

The Communist Party may be reluctant to jettison a strategy that has served it so well for the past two decades. That would be a mistake. It must confront the new social and political realities in China. Continuing the current course will endanger, not sustain, the long-term survival of the party as a viable political institution. On the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, Communist Party leaders might want to congratulate themselves for averting a similar disaster. But please hold the mao tai. The future of the party in the next 20 years is anything but certain.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College