For prior posts in this series, see Whither Xi? Whither CCP? Whither China?


 Whither China? post #3 - Question 1 - CCP authoritarian resilience … or not

In the early Hu Jintao years, it did seem as if CCP was impervious to assault.  Over the decades, it weathered murder of landlords in the early years, then the Great Famine, then the Cultural Revolution, then Tian’anmen, then cancelling of dozens of millions of jobs in the late 1990s, and environmental and tainted food and land theft mass protests every year since.  Authoritarian resilience is the term coined by Joseph Nye in 2003 for this tough stability.

But since the last years of the Hu administration, and now forcefully with Xi, resilience is not how observers see CCP, and most decidedly, not how CCP sees itself.

Xi Jinping was brought in to address the existential crises facing CCP.  Xi himself has proclaimed the moral crisis of cadres and Chinese citizens alike.  As more of China becomes middle class, economic growth loses its cachet as the raison d’etre for loyalty.  If stability, harmony, is necessary to CCP longevity, and economic growth is less salient for many, then other values take precedence – schools, health care, pure food and air and water, fair procedures in government, fair treatment generally and voice in the future.  All of these are great worries for citizens and cadres alike.  Resilience from threats, beatings, and murders no longer works as means of control when cadres are in the groups protesting.  Now, resilience must mean governing responsibly, and that is difficult when government loyalties are not to citizens but to leaders.   In modern China, with modern values, what to do?  How to do?

There are two broad categories of observations about the future of CCP  – those who believe in “authoritarian resilience” and those who do not.  Those who subscribe to a theory of “authoritarian resilience” are not dismissive of the atrocities and corruption and moral failings of CCP.   Nevertheless, they see characteristics of Chinese culture, plus adaptability of CCP in the face of crises, as sufficient provider of cover for authoritarian governance.  The government is resilient in the face of failings and protests and real anger among millions of Chinese. After all, CCP has weathered the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, Tian’anmen, surprising and rapid policy reversals, emergence of capitalism and a middle class.  Authoritarian resilience might be seen as a version of the last scene in the movie Chinatown  – “… c’mon, Jake.  forget it, Jake.  It’s … Chinatown.”  China, inscrutable, remains.  Or, perhaps, Chinese culture über alles, and authoritarian government has always been the model.

Some western observers who were surprised at CCP survival after Tian’anmen turned reluctantly to resilience as the default future for CCP.  Richard McGregor, author of the best-selling book The Party, wrote in 2011 that perhaps the Party really could rule forever. Both Andrew Nathan, who coined the term authoritarian resilience in 2003, and David Shambaugh, of China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, once were in the resilience camp.  But that was still in the Hu Jintao era. Both have reconsidered in the era of Xi, Shambaugh with his highly publicized op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, China’s Coming Crackup.  Resilience is no longer a reasonable description of CCP.  Susan Shirk described the insecurity of Chinese leaders in Fragile Superpower in 2008; in 2019, the insecurity of leaders regarding domestic affairs is far more acute.  Shirk quoted Bill Clinton in 1999, but even more pertinent today – “A tight grip is actually a sign of a weak hand.”  (Fragile, page 256).

Now, in 2019, there are plenty of reasons to think that authoritarian resilience has run out of steam.  Mr. Xi, as the most powerful strongman since Mao, with a cult of Xi forming around him, and an anticorruption campaign that targets political rivals, appears an anxious and weak leader.  No doubt he reflects senior Party thinking – CCP fragility has been on the table since the collapse of the USSR in 1990-91.   But Mr. Xi is stoking the fires he seeks to quench.

Resilience made sense for a long time after Tian’anmen.  The change in Andrew Nathan’s view is illustrative.  In 2003, he outlined four institutional developments in the Chinese political system that supported resilience –

1) the increasingly norm-bound nature of its succession politics;

2) the increase in meritocratic, as opposed to factional, considerations in the promotion of political elites;

3) the differentiation and functional specialization of institutions within the regime; and

4) the establishment of institutions for political participation that strengthen the CCP’ s legitimacy among the public at large.


Xi who must be obeyed

All four are now resting on the dust heap of Chinese history.   Xi violated the first by changing the CCP Constitution to permit himself to remain past the recent tradition of limiting the President to two five-year terms.  It was customary for successors to be identified in the second of the two five year terms of the General Secretary. At the Party Congress in November of 2017, Xi failed to point to any successors who would continue his program past the (old) norm of retirement in 2022.   The criterion for appointment to elite positions is now loyalty - not to CCP, but to the faction of Xi, consisting – really – of Xi alone.  As to the second development, on meritocracy - No close colleagues of Xi have been nailed in the anti-corruption campaign.  Nathan’s third institutional development, functional specialization in governance, is no more. In creating super-agency leading small groups, with himself at the head, Xi is the only arbiter of policy across all sectors – finance, banking, human resources, resource allocation, planning, fiscal relations, foreign affairs, further opening up. His desires are the only standard for evaluating feasibility of any project or program.

An example, from the great internet firewall – there is a joint venture university in Zhejiang Province between Wenzhou University and Kean university, a business-model school from New Jersey.  The joint venture is supposed to be modern in every respect. The school buildings are built to American standards, not Chinese – fire sprinklers and smoke alarms in classrooms, exit signs in hallways and student lounges in classroom buildings.  Faculty are not Chinese, but students are only Chinese.  This project was Xi’s baby when he was Zhejiang Party chief.  You remember internet censorship, and Mr. Xi’s harsh crackdown on western imports of knowledge and news?  There is no internet censorship at Wenzhou-Kean University.  No one outside is supposed to know that, but I have used it myself.


Core of CCP

You probably know that the Chinese constitution has been altered to eliminate restrictions on the state president serving more than one successive term in office – limiting rule to ten years.   Xi saw to that change at the third plenum of the 19th Party Congress in 2018.  The proposal for change came from the Central Committee, roughly 375 elite party members (including about 170 alternates).  The change was ratified by the National People’s Congress a couple of weeks later. But that was only one of many changes to law and custom Xi has engineered. 


Mr. Xi has assumed an extraordinary number of job titles, in addition to the top three positions of party general secretary, state president, and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC).  In the first few years, he created or put himself at the head of a number of “leading small groups,” which by now have been institutionalized as central commission decision-making bodies –

 - the Central Committee for Deepening Overall Reform

- the Central Financial Economic Affairs Commission

- the Central Auditing Committee

- the Commission for Law-based Governance of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party

- the National Security Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China

- the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China

- the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China


Within the Politburo itself, each member must now report directly to Xi on an annual basis, jettisoning the “working group of equals” concept that had previously been the norm.  This transforms the comradely relationship of the Politburo to an institutionalized hierarchy.   Politburo members now report directly to Xi, rather than at least ostensibly to the Central Committee which elected them. 

And now, after the Nineteenth Party Congress in 2018, there is an addition to the CCP charter, the position of Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman, which Xi of course heads. Wu Guoguang in China Leadership Monitor comments that this change is akin to that of der Führer, in which the leader is clearly a first among equals on the military commission.  All the CMC members now report to Xi directly.    Wu notes that Xi has signaled that he can ignore or destroy leadership norms and customs established since Deng.  In 2019, we are familiar with such practices by a leader in Washington.   But rule of law and presidential succession are not yet in question in the US.  In China, Xi having destroyed those customs is ominous for that day that he decides to retire or is infirm enough to challenge directly. 

As to the fourth of Nathan’s categories – the experiments in intra-Party democracy for promotion within departments and the voting for village elected officials are both gone.  Political questions or protest via social media are effectively gone as well.  The social credit score will see to that.  Andrew Nathan’s four institutional supports for resilience, once credible, are no more – and he is no longer in the resilience camp.  No western observer now buys this argument, and many CCP theoreticians are in agreement.

Those who no longer see “authoritarian resilience” understand that Chinese culture provides some cover for unfairness and immorality in governance but at a steep price in legitimacy and smoldering resentment.  At one point, the grand political bargain that CCP struck with the population was, “We will let you get rich, you let us govern.” Those circumstances that allowed China to prosper and CCP to thrive since 1978 are no longer in place.  The wealthy and the very wealthy are now forces with which to contend, even as they are beholden to the Party for continued flourishing.  As hard as it tries, the government cannot import western Dr. Science without the specter of Mr. Democracy.  The same students who go to the US for degrees in STEM come back wanting to say what they think, even as they adjust to life back within the authoritarian regime.  Middle class CCP cadres whose livelihoods depend on party stability still want clean air, water, food, and good education and job opportunities for kids.  China is not a tinderbox waiting for a spark, but the constant stirring of anger and resentment is no way to run a country.   If something cannot go on forever, then it will eventually stop – hence a warning to CCP, which turns 100 years old in 2021 and in that year will be the longest lasting single party state in history, at 72 years.

Many Party theoreticians saw authoritarian resilience as a natural feature of Chinese political culture.  After all, dynasties were pretty resilient, mostly for two or three hundred years each, and CCP compares pretty favorably with dynastic rule in its approach to governance.  Lucian Pye’s The Mandarin and the Cadre recognizes the similarity between the modern cadre and the ancient mandarin, or literati. The Party is not a monolith – it has shown itself, time and again, to be enormously flexible and sensitive to local prerogatives as long as it can extract sufficient resources to remain in power.  


China can be resilient; can CCP?

But significantly, there are also many highly regarded and highly placed Chinese intellectuals who see not resilience, but danger – even Wu Jinglian, considered the eminence grise of Chinese economists.   His 2016 book Whither China lays out defects in the Chinese system of governance that cannot be tolerated in a modern economy – the excessive segmentation of the market among provinces; lack of equal  treatment in courts and regulation; local provincial protectionism and monopolies; and lack of rule of law.  Wu sees stagnation and unrest ahead without restructuring of the economy and social relations.

Many have called for China to begin some transition toward democracy, to ward off unrest in the Party and outside.  Xi Jinping himself seems to believe that China’s reform requirements have entered “deep waters” – he warned about moral decay in Chinese society.  It is a new era, and not only because Xi is the core leader.   The days of stocking a factory with workers just off the farm are long over, and changes required to move up both ends of the smiley-face value chain curve will be difficult.  Vested interests need to be shaved or eliminated; large SOE will need to lose jobs and revenue and profits; farmers need access to the economy so they can join in consumer spending; social overhead capital – education, health care, pensions - need heavy upgrading; environmental and fairness issues are paramount everywhere.   CCP will need maximum conceivable flexibility to weather these storms.   

Chinese observers in the west, such as Willy Lam, Victor Shih, Cheng Li, Minxin Pei, Andy Xie, are far less sanguine about resilience, particularly now in the age of Xi.   Questions about the survivability of CCP have been confounded, or enhanced, with questions about the survivability of Xi Jinping and the stability of CCP post-Xi.

Willy Lam, the highly regarded observer of Chinese politics, has listed the reforms – or anti-reforms - by which Xi has turned China back to a more authoritarian state – no more “collective leadership;” more arbitrary and precipitous disappearances and arrests; clampdowns on speech, assembly, writing, the internet, and social media; a pogrom against liberal intellectuals and rights lawyers; stirring of a cult of Xi; and an aggressive foreign policy. Lam was the first observer* to predict Mr. Xi as changing the Chinese constitution so he could remain in power after 2022.  Lam did this in spring of 2015.  (*actually, I made that same call via emails a few weeks before Willy Lam.  No matter.  I am happy to play Liebnitz to Lam’s Newton).

The cult of Xi is a particularly dangerous notion since it evokes images of the fanaticism toward Mao in the Great Famine and in the Cultural Revolution.  CCP cadres speak privately of a return to the feel of Cultural Revolution days.   I referred to the cult in previous posts here and here.

The deep waters that Mr. Xi cited are really an existential problem for CCP. As Willy Lam explains – “Despite the fact that Xi has taken more forceful steps to crack down on corruption and rent-seeking, Chinese society lacks the basics of rule of law and distributive justice to prevent members of disadvantaged sectors such as peasants and migrant workers from being exploited by the moneyed and politically empowered classes.”  Lam is pointing to a societal problem, extending back far before 1949, and reflecting the comment by Sun Yat Sen, that the Chinese are like a handful of sand – disorganized, and cannot be molded.  The sense of a civic, a community, does not exist.


Just how is it that CCP no longer feels resilient, if it ever did?

So far in the Xi era, resilience has meant doubling down on repression.  The anti-corruption campaign is the most obvious tell.  A regime unconcerned about popular reaction would not have a campaign that is so well publicized.  The crackdown on dissent online is another.  Free expression has never been an honored concept in China, but in the last six years, the censorship and repercussions have magnified.  The 50 Cent Army has long filled comment sections with supportive CCP posts.  The website China Digital Times documents the daily scrubbing of words and ideas and translates otherwise restricted instructions from the Propaganda Bureau to news agencies across China – don’t report on this, put coverage of that on page 2, downplay this.  Crackdown on free assembly is another obvious tell of a frightened regime.  Four women were arrested in Beijing while protesting domestic violence and subway harassment; this is one of many such stories.  An assembly of four or more people is deemed to be potentially dangerous.  Every year around June 4, particularly in the 10-year anniversaries – 2009, 2019 – the internet becomes unavailable to foreigners – at least in my experience.   Threats to foreign academics in their home country;  threats to Chinese students studying abroad; threats to foreign UN ambassadors in the UN.  None of this sounds like a country confident of its legitimacy at home or its place in the world.  

One way of thinking about the fear is that CCP remains a highly structured, leader focused, honor-bound system of rules and promotion in a modern era of less structure, flat organizations, multi-disciplinary work teams. China wants the most advanced science, technology, medicine and engineering; but those things come with exposure to western values that threaten CCP.  In the words of the Old Hippie song, CCP wants to be modern, but just can’t quite make that work in the system it has –

He's an old hippie and he don't know what to do
Should he hang on to the old should he grab on to the new
He's an old hippie his new life is just a bust
He ain't trying to change nobody he just trying real hard to adjust

(Bellamy brothers, 1985)


CCP feels threatened by modernity, by young Chinese, by ethnic religions, by the west, by neighbors.  Party leaders, and Xi himself, have noted the moral decline in China, particularly as leaders are traditionally supposed to be moral exemplars.  If CCP leaders are corrupt, what legitimacy for CCP?  Xi has given himself a huge portfolio – the biggest possible, it seems – to purify the Party and alongside, the whole of the Chinese people, all with the fundamental goal of saving CCP.  No one speaks of resilience anymore.  But still Xi must clean the Augean stables. 


Next: Whither China? post #4 - Question 2 - Xi’s MO - Purifying CCP and the Chinese people – can Xi do it?