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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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This article is now closed to comments

It is more likely for China to survive the next 25 years than for the US and Japan.
I Gandhi
If Professor Minxin Pei doesn't write anti-Chinese articles his worth as a "China Scholar" in the US with it's double standards and diabolical system of divide and rule and international lawlessness would be greatly diminished. It will be even worse if he writes the truth. Should we expect such a great man to write something like "The US survived the War on Terrorism, but does it have the tools to last another 25 years? " That will be asking too much!!!!!
With malicious lies about the PRC told relentlessly in his stilted, heavily accented English, could Minxin Pei continue to survive as a China expert and an academic in the US for another year?

He has been predicting China's demise like an obsessed eschatologist for as long as one remembers. Doesn't he have any shame for his phony expertise and tall tales?

Demonizing China has consumed his entire life. Time for him to pack it in, get a life and learn to speak English like an educated Chinese American.

Why this publication continues to publish his hateful prophesies is a mystery to many SCMP readers, including yours truly.
M Miyagi
The West have been pining for the collapse of the CCP for decades and that didn't happen but the reverse happened. The CCP will just have to work harder to destroy enemies both internal and external and win the people's heart by eliminating both corruption and waste as far as possible and also by meeting the needs of the Chinese people while at the same time going on the path of deeper political and economic reforms. Nobody is perfect. It's more likely for the US terrorist state to collapse that for China to collapse. China is not the USSR. As long as China adopts whatever works ignoring the ideology or religious overtones it will work well. It is in this spirit that China will thrive by being inclusive and being responsive. Can we say that about the West especially the USA?
My thoughts precisely.
I Gandhi
The Communist Party of China in the past quarter century have delivered for the people of China great economic and political progress and lifted 600 million people out of poverty and by 2010 have made China the world's second biggest economy. No other country in the world have been able to do this in such a short time frame. All this was done by trials and errors and certainly June 4th 1989 was an unfortunate event in China's history and long road to progress. China certainly have problems with corruption and crime. However it is the only country in the world that is taking actions to reduce this. It is also deepening political and economic reforms to give China a 21st century political and economic system. Also China's engagement with Africa in the last 25 years have brought more real benefits to African countries than the centuries of Western colonialism followed by neo-colonialism after the African countries gained independence. China's success isn't without problems and needs to be addressed by furthering reforms. However success will certainly breed further success. In terms of foreign policy, China is certainly more peaceful compared with the US and her allies. The US military alliance in both Europe and Asia have not brought peace and security, instead misguided US policies to this day have actually caused more harms and conflicts like the so-called "War on Terrorism" actually a War on Muslims. China should use her power to save herself and her friends in the world.
How About
Rodomontade, this "professor's" writing couldn't even survive a fact-check!
The "facts" that he references sound about right. The "opinions" and conclusions he draws from those facts seem pretty reasonable as well. Time for you (and people like you) to actually come up with specific criticisms of what he wrote, rather than resorting to generic attacks on the messenger. That's lame. Now he's supposed to be a "bot"? Wow, that's persuasive stuff...LOL.
whymak and others are easily galled by people like Pei stating the plain facts about the CCPs appalling modus operandi: survival at any cost. Just days ago Xi's regime imprisoned three activists with June 4 free speech credentials for nothing more than expressing their views. The CCP is an embarrassment to human development on Earth and the sooner it is overthrown the better.
How About
I assume your default position goes something like this, China today must be on par with the rest of the developed West otherwise it's not worthy to breath?
I urge you to feign a thought, a hyperbole- 1949 was the scorched earth Year-0 for all China. It is today 65 years ago. And for (nearly) all of the 1.3 Billion she has today had a reboot since 1949.
Then all of the inscrutable peculiar or unfathomable the typical observers or critics such as yourself accord to China or Chinese or even CCP as incomprehensible, fall into place.
BTW that wasn't just a hyperbole, it was.



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