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  • Jul 29, 2014
  • Updated: 11:01am
Tiananmen Square crackdown
CommentInsight & Opinion

The Communist Party survived Tiananmen, but does it have the tools to last another 25 years?

Minxin Pei says though the Chinese Communist Party survived the consequences of its brutal crackdown of June 4 protesters in 1989, the next 25 years will prove more challenging to its rule

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 4:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 4:32am

It may be hard to imagine, but 25 years ago, the Chinese Communist Party was nearly toppled by a nationwide pro-democracy movement. It was the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's steely nerves and the tanks of the People's Liberation Army - dispatched to enforce martial law and suppress the protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square - that enabled the regime to avoid collapse, at the cost of several hundred civilian lives.

On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, two questions stand out: how has the party survived the last quarter of a century, and can its rule endure for another 25 years?

The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. Policy adjustments, clever tactics of manipulation, and a healthy dose of luck enabled it to win the support it needed to retain power and suppress destabilising forces.

To be sure, serious mistakes were made. Following the massacre, China's conservative leaders attempted to reverse the liberalising reforms that Deng had initiated in the 1980s, plunging the economy into recession. And the Soviet Union's implosion in 1991 caused a panic in the party.

But Deng again managed to save the party. Mustering all of his energy and political capital, the then 87-year-old leader revived pro-market reforms, unleashing an economic revolution that delivered an unprecedented wave of growth and development, thereby boosting the party's credibility considerably.

Deng and his successors buttressed this trend by granting Chinese citizens considerable personal freedoms, fuelling the emergence of a culture of crass consumerism and mass entertainment. In this new world of "bread and circuses", it was far easier for the party to regain public support and suppress the opposition. Carefully orchestrated moves to promote Chinese nationalism and exploit xenophobia also helped.

Even repression, the mainstay of the regime's survival, was fine-tuned. China's newly acquired wealth enabled its leaders to build one of the world's most technically sophisticated internet firewalls and equip its internal security forces with the most effective tools.

In dealing with China's small but resilient dissident community, the regime depends on the strategy of "decapitation". In other words, the government eliminates the threat posed by leading opposition figures by jailing them or forcing them into exile, regardless of their prominence. Liu Xiaobo - who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize - was sentenced to 11 years in prison, despite worldwide protest.

However cynical, the approach has worked. But the party might not have been quite so successful had it not got lucky in a few critical areas. For starters, the post-1992 reforms coincided with a surge of globalisation, which provided China with massive capital inflows (about US$1 trillion in foreign direct investment since 1992), a slew of new technologies, and virtually unimpeded access to Western consumer markets. China thus became the workshop of the world, with its exports rising more than tenfold by 2007.

Another factor that worked in the regime's favour was the so-called demographic dividend (an abundant labour force and a relatively small percentage of children and elderly dependents). This provided China with plentiful low-cost labour, while saving the government large expenditure on pensions and health care.

The problem facing the party now is that most of the factors that enabled it to survive since Tiananmen have either already disappeared or are heading in that direction. Indeed, for all practical purposes, pro-market reforms are dead. A kleptocracy of government officials, their families and well-connected businessmen has colonised the Chinese state and is intent on blocking any reforms that might threaten their privileged status.

Moreover, the party can no longer count on rising prosperity to sustain public support. Rampant corruption and rising inequality, together with obvious environmental decay, are causing ordinary Chinese - especially the middle class, which once had high hopes for reform - to become increasingly disillusioned.

At the same time, given rapid population ageing, China's demographic dividend has all but dissipated. And, given that China is already the world's largest exporter, there is little room left for export growth in the coming years.

That leaves only repression and nationalism in the party's post-Tiananmen toolkit. And, indeed, both of them continue to play a central role in President Xi Jinping's strategy for ensuring the party's survival.

But Xi is also experimenting with two new devices: an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign and an attempt to revive pro-market reforms. So far, his war on corruption has made a bigger impact than his plan for economic reform.

On the surface, Xi's strategy seems sound. But waging war on corrupt officials and pressing for deep reforms aimed at dismantling China's kleptocracy will inevitably bring Xi into conflict with China's political and economic elites. The question is how he can overcome their resistance without rallying the Chinese people, whose political mobilisation could endanger the one-party system.

The Communist Party defied the doomsayers after 1989: it survived and preempted any further threats to its power. But the odds that it can hold on for another quarter of a century have grown long - and are unlikely to improve.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Copyright: Project Syndicate

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I Gandhi
Interesting to note that the widely distributed photo of Tankman — the lone student standing before a row of army tanks and heavily publicised as showing brave defiance against a cruel regime — was in fact taken the day after Tiananmen events, and the tanks were moving away from, and not into, Tiananmen Square.
321manu
"The stated conclusion by Pei is China will collapse."
---wrong, once again. It seems some people can barely read. What Pei concludes is that the CCP has long odds for surviving the next 25 years. You really need to stop conflating the CCP for China...lest you say truly stupid stuff like 'China has been in existence since 1949'.
Since the rest of your "comment" is premised on a falsehood, I could stop here. But let's go on cuz it amuses me.
Where in this piece does Pei refer to corruption? Are you criticizing him as an "academic fraud" based on this piece, in reference to something he didn't say? That would be an ad hominem taken to a higher order. Well done.
Only the truly stupid reference Pew surveys wrt China. I've outlined the methodological train-wreck many times before. Pew has to contract a Chinese company to conduct surveys on its behalf. Surveyors only sample a group that represents roughly 50% of the population, with a significant slant towards urban areas. I guess those are the kind of "facts" that look good to people like you. All the while, you've yet to look at HKTP surveys in HK, which are methodologically sound. It seems your logic is only as good as whatever fits your ideological slant.
"Reductio ad absurdum proves Pei’s claims false."
---huh? Do you understand the concept? Pei does not contravene any principle of non-contradiction. He's talking future events...you can agree or disagree, but how do you "prove" them "false"?
321manu
"Everything quoted by him is totally irrelevant to his conclusion stated upfront."
---that's funny, cuz you've yet to actually rebut any particular point he's made in this article. All you're provided is one long-winded ad hominem...and it's funny that you've confused yourself into thinking otherwise.
You know what, it's perfectly fine to disagree with Pei. Intelligent people would point to specifics to justify their basis for disagreement, but that's clearly not your cohort. If your ideological training can only take you so far as to mock his spoken English, then you do what you gotta do. But it's truly fascinating to see CCP apologists threatened to such an extent that voicing disagreement is insufficient, and that repetitive character assassination has to suffice as "logic". That said, I've long ago realized that human logic and CCP apologist "logic" are two very different things.
You seem to really gravitate towards all these "god" references, even though you supposedly don't believe in that sort of thing. Obviously, "god" isn't your religion. Just as obviously, the CCP is. And that's ok too. You do what you gotta do. But please spare me the "scientific basis" nonsense for your belief system, since we both know there isn't any.
whymak
What does it take to prove charlatanism and fraud? Facts, reason and logic. Facts are learned by experiences. Readers are entitled to their opinions, but not facts. Uses of reason and logic are results of education and individual intelligence.
The stated conclusion by Pei is China will collapse. Morons believe he has proved it in this piece. This is akin to someone saying God exists and they go about proving it.
Proofs need facts, reason and logic. Any schoolboy in math knows the proof by contradiction. If one says that sum of angles in a triangle in Euclidean geometry doesn’t add up to 2 right angles, all one has to do is prove it false.
Will corruption in China cause it to implode? Professor Ramirez showed at similar income levels between the US and China, the former was more corrupt and went on to become first the greatest industrial power (1899) and most mighty militarily (1941-1945).
Will China collapse because the people disapprove? Pew survey says Beijing has an approval rating of 87% and US Congress 12%.
QED.
Facts are stubborn. Reductio ad absurdum proves Pei’s claims false. Everything quoted by him is totally irrelevant to his conclusion stated upfront.
A lesson in logic is stated here. One of God’s attributes is almighty. Could He build a wall so high that he couldn’t jump over? China’s meltdown is such a belief.
Only morons believe in Pei’s infomercials. You resent my statements because you have neither work experience nor intelligence to use logic.
whymak
How About:
I will vouch for your instinctive demand for fact checks from this academic fraud. I had watched him a few times on TV.

His theory of China’s imminent collapse is often based on “analysis” of its economy. He frequently quotes economic data from IMF, World Bank and other sources totally out of context.

Though I am only an amateur economist out of necessity -- job tours in M&A, corporate planning, business development, etc., I am conversant with both macro and financial economists. Yes, I read professional journals and have built numerous models both for competitive analysis and investment portfolios. Spotting this quack posing as expert political economist is a no brainer.

A while ago, I pointed out one such China expert economist, who worked for both HKUST and University of Pittsburgh to some local academics. Sad fact is SCMP editorial staff doesn’t have the expertise to screen out these imposters, who are not even borderline economics and mathematics literate.

The best situation is of course let this idiot talk his heart out on HK TV -- with subtitles for his English speech -- and then allow us to grill him live.

Western media need this kind of China bashing flimflam con artists to manufacture public consent. Ignorant interlocutors in US talk shows are plenty respectful toward him too without equal time given to others to debunk his lies.
321manu
OMG. Instead of the unnecessary self-glorification and incessant character assassination, is it really too much to ask of you people to state even one (1) specific criticism of what the guy has written here?
I would label your comment above as just one big ad hominem, but I don't have any confidence you know what that means.
mrlcooper
Boasting, BS and abuse is all whymak has to offer I'm afraid.
edmund.singleton
History tells me that any movement brutally crushed will rise again and again...'like something inside that has always been denied', so said the Beatles...
Mikado
It is more likely for China to survive the next 25 years than for the US and Japan.
321manu
China will undoubtedly survive the next 25 years. The CCP? Who knows. What's truly mind-boggling is that some self-professed learned commentators here still can't tell the difference.
The CCP has bribed Chinese people with GDP growth, and some personal freedoms. In an era of slowing GDP growth, it remains to be seen whether the CCP koolaid with still be sufficient for the majority of PRC citizens.
The last quarter century of China's economic rise was founded on her manufacturing strength. It is debatable whether the CCP is up to the task of marshalling in a more consumer driven economy.
And of course, the case can be made that China was not ready for its own democratic evolution at any point in the last 25 years. That may change, and hopefully will change, in the next 25 years.
Maybe someday, China will mature to the point that it can acknowledge events such as June 4. I'm not sure the CCP will ever mature to that point, but I guess anything's possible.

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