Some Notes on CCP Internal Resilience
“Authoritarian resilience” was the explanation in the west for CCP stability post Tian’anmen. We can distinguish two meanings of CCP resilience over time. The first describes resilience with respect to the Chinese people. How does the single party authoritarian, if not autocratic, state maintain legitimacy over time? What keeps angry or dissatisfied people out of the streets?
There is another resilience, and that is resilience internal to CCP. What keeps cadres loyal to the system they joined years ago?
This resilience cannot be maintained with violence, and it must be salient on a daily basis since internal rivals for power and control of resources have resources of their own. No ideology is free of human desires.
I want to explore CCP resilience to intra-Party conflict. This is a series of posts, each not too long, and dealing with different aspects of internal resilience. These are popular postings, not academic, but I hope they convey the range of reasons for CCP endurance now and into the future.
There has certainly been plenty of internal CCP conflict – serious disagreements at the very top, even with Mao, are well known. Lin Biao, putative successor to Mao, died in a plane crash likely fleeing from a failed coup. The Gang of Four was arrested and deposed within a few weeks of Mao’s death. Deng Xiaoping was purged at least twice before returning to power in 1978. You probably know something of the Bo Xilai story from 2012. I am not so interested in the list of conflicts, purges, and attempted coups. There were plenty of purges and rebellions within the Party before 1949 as well. I do want to explore the general ideas behind the ability of CCP to remain unified for seventy years.
Before exploring internal resilience, I want to provide a brief note on resilience against popular uprising, which is what we usually think of as “authoritarian resilience.”
Many western observers were surprised by developments in China post-Tian-anmen. The government did not collapse during or after the events of spring, 1989. The rationalization was that the Chinese regime had found a sweet spot for melding of Chinese culture, respect for authority, deference to leaders, local flexibility amid national guidance, economic growth and family values. In that sweet spot, the Party can prosper as an authoritarian single party state, even though modernism should otherwise push China toward more openness, more market-oriented and democratic means of rule. Modernization theory sees democratic rule as the logical next step from middle income status.
The grand bargain that CCP struck with the people in China was, “We let you get rich, you let us govern.” Some observers are still waiting for the evolution of democracy in middle income China. The grand bargain seems to still be working.
Other observers claim widespread internal popular support for CCP, and there is at least some truth in that. Economic growth has been the principle legitimating factor for decades now. Tan Wenfang in The "Surprise" of Authoritarian Resilience in China, uses opinion surveys to reach that conclusion. Whether respondents are telling the truth or not is certainly an open question, but Martin King Whyte has not found resentment simmering below the surface. For most Chinese in the last forty years, today has been better than yesterday. And to the extent that Marxism is still relevant, we should remember that CCP is the bourgeoisie. “It’s the economy, stupid” is a relevant operating principle in China, too.
Economic performance has been the default justification for CCP legitimacy, now that Marxism no longer motivates most people. Not only is today better than yesterday, most Chinese feel that tomorrow will be better than today. Hard to argue with that perspective, regardless of censorship and constraints on meeting and speech and thought.
As the economy necessarily slows, Mr. Xi is trying a still different tack - to create a nationalism melding CCP and the Chinese nation and Chinese state as a unified civilization-state (Lucian Pye, China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society. Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1990). Hence the description of China by the FBI director as a "whole of state" threat – students in America, researchers in universities or companies, business partners and businesses themselves can all be expected to serve the demands of the party state in cyberintrusion, theft, or misinformation. The objects of such attention by the government can either be happy to serve the motherland in Making China Great Again or terrified of what might happen to their own careers or their parents if they refuse to serve. Either way, CCP wins, and looks pretty resilient doing so.
We know how an authoritarian regime can impose its will on the general population. Threats and physical violence and censorship and brutality work pretty well, over generations. Now, monitoring of social media, facial recognition, heavy police presence and the threat of overwhelming violence without recourse to courts tend to keep Chinese protest muted. Fear is a great unmotivator.
But our question in these posts is different - how does an authoritarian regime control its own members so that factions, charisma, local differences and changing conditions don’t crack the internal authoritarian armor?
I look at a few ideas in these next posts -
3 - A history lesson
8 - United we stand