Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

China according to the collapsists, declinists and triumphalists

  • Will China drop dead or take over the world? I would bet on neither, not in our lifetime anyway

Some people are determined to be party-poopers. Just as the Chinese Communist Party is set to celebrate the centennial of its founding next month, Minxin Pei predictably comes up with another opinion piece predicting its demise, any time now.

“If the CPC is not on the right track with its neo-Maoist revival,” he wrote, “its upcoming milestone may be its last.

“The fact that no other [dictatorial] party in modern times has survived for a century should give China’s leaders cause for worry, not celebration… One obvious reason for the relatively short lifespan of communist or authoritarian parties is that party-dominated modern dictatorships, unlike democracies, emerged only in the 20th century.”

Sometimes I feel for the likes of Pei and Gordon G Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, first published in 2001, who has since repeated his prophecy many times. Let’s call them collapsists.

And Pei is repeating himself. Here’s a piece he wrote in September 2019: “While there is technically no time limit on dictatorship, the party is approaching the longevity frontier for one-party regimes.” He then cited Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Taiwan’s Kuomintang, as he does in his latest piece.

The totalitarian party state, it’s true, may be a distinctive 20th century phenomenon, so is democracy if we equate the term with “universal suffrage”. Of course, democracy in a loose sense dates back a long time; tyranny and empire even longer. Is the contemporary Chinese “communist” state really communist and totalitarian any more? A brief trip to China should give you a quick and easy answer, say, after the global pandemic.

More historically minded scholars have compared the modern “communist” era to historical dynasties. In that case, the life expectancy of the CCP automatically lengthens. Mao Zedong had compared himself to Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, and considered himself an even greater historical figure.

Here I just calculate from a standard dynastic chart: Qin dynasty (15 years); Han dynasties, including western and eastern Han (426 years); Jin dynasty (155 years); Northern and Southern dynasties (203 years); Sui dynasty (37 years); Tang dynasty (289 years); Song dynasties, including northern and southern Song (319 years); Yuan dynasty (97 years); Ming dynasty (276 years); Qing dynasty (267 years).

Then there are those who advocate what has been called the “civilisational state” as the proper way to understand countries with a long history such as China, India and Russia. Boy, that will just lengthen the life of the modern Chinese state by a few centuries, if not indefinitely. Among those are prominent Fudan University international relations specialist Zhang Weiwei and Martin Jacques of the bestselling When China Rules the World. Likewise, Jayant Sinha, former minister and intellectual voice of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, takes such a civilisational view of the Indian state; and Vladislav Surkov, long-time Kremlin éminence grise, of the Russian state.

It all depends on how you frame your historical and political references to get the average life expectancy of a political regime you want.

As opposed to collapsists, those of the “civilisational state” persuasion tend to be triumphalists. Thus Jacques recently declared: “The Chinese Communist Party is the most remarkable and influential political party of modern times, the architect of China’s transformation. It has shown an extraordinary ability to change with the times and engage in a process of constant reinvention. It combines pragmatism with very long-term thinking in a way which is unique.”

Instead of seeing Pei and Jacques as opposites, it’s better to consider them a mirror image of each other. A triumphalist of China is usually a collapsist or declinist of the United States and of the West; and vice versa. As Jacques wrote in Global Times: “The West is divided and fragmenting. The authority of the US is in decline, no longer able to get its way as it once was.”

On the other hand, if all modern one-party or dictatorial states have a short expiry date, as Pei claims, then logically, all modern states must tend towards Western-style democracy in the end; it’s either that or chaos. Haven’t we heard that one before? Did someone say Francis Fukuyama?

So, will China drop dead or take over the world? Frankly, I would bet on neither, not in our lifetime anyway.