CCP Internal Resilience – post 9 of 10

Strength Through Struggle – Nietzsche, anyone?

Western political theorists would like to find a single theory to explain changes in authoritarian governance patterns over time.  How to explain regime longevity and collapse in Europe, in Africa, in Asia?  How to explain transitions into and out of authoritarianism?  Why do some regimes collapse and others ride out similar shocks to the system?  What makes a regime more stable?  When and how does the authority in an authoritarian regime collapse?

One thinks of external shocks – invasions and wars and climate changes and bouts of drought and flood.  (Think the mandate of heaven).  And factional rivalry within the ruling class and competition for power and wealth. And rebellion by peasants below.  But these shocks to the system say nothing about the resilient strength of the ruling party.   Why are some stable and others not?

Internally to the ruling regime, one can think about the role of charismatic leaders, the influence of the military, the command of the economy and the media, loyalty of followers and command over disparate regions and tribes, the strength of party building, and the extent of conflict at the time of party formation.

Barbara Geddes researched these factors in Authoritarian Breakdown: Empirical Test of a Game Theoretic Argument.  She considered three classes of authoritarian regimes, which she called personalist, single party, and military.  A personalist authoritarian regime has a single, maybe charismatic leader, and the ruling party is built around his leadership.  Such regimes usually don’t survive the weakness or death of the leader.  Military regimes are dominated by military officers, and have a better chance at longevity.  Single party regimes can be stable over long periods, mostly because they are willing to adapt to conditions and offer inducements to potential rivals to join.  She identifies a fourth type, an amalgam of any of the other three.

Geddes also looked at conditions during the time of party formation.  A general conclusion is that ruling groups that faced and survived the most strenuous fiscal and political crises early on are likely to do so because they invested heavily in institution and coalition building. The party institutions they build tend to be robust and allow not just for administrative power but for the maintenance of ruling coalitions through later crises as well.  Single party states created in struggle – civil war, conflict with other parties, or external war – tend to be stronger, more durable, and long-lived.  In stable times, single party regimes make accommodation with outside interests, in order to maintain supremacy.

Benjamin Smith confirmed Geddes’ conclusions in  Life of the Party: The Origins of Regime Breakdown and Persistence Under Single Party Rule.  Smith –

The importance of building stalwart party organizations manifests itself over time in the political trajectories that emerge from the consolidation years…. During “routine” periods, strong parties provide a means for incorporated groups to present their political and policy preferences to the regime, channeling interests in much the same way that Huntington foresaw in the single-party rule of the 1960s. During periods of crisis, the crucial task of party institutions is to provide a credible guarantee to in-groups that their long-term interests will be best served by remaining loyal to the regime…. Another central mechanism through which parties can cement regime survival is by providing an attractive alternative to continued opposition for dissident group leaders, who might thereby be induced to defect from the opposition and enter the party apparatus.


This describes CCP formation very well, over the twenty-five years of conflict with guomindang (nationalist party) and then the Japanese invasion.  As to adaptation – the Party admitted private entrepreneurs in 1991, as part of Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents.  Now, the interests of Party and business are nearly uniform.  In 2004, the Chinese constitution was changed to give greater private property rights to holders of use rights.  Bruce Dickson wrote about these changes in Red Capitalists in China: The Party, Private Entrepreneurs, and the Prospects for Political Change (Cambridge, 2003).  Dickson sees this flexibility as adding stability to CCP, as entrepreneurial cadres strike out on their own and siblings and children work the business angle afforded by relative’s political connections.  He did not see entrepreneurs as providing support for democratic change, and he has been proven correct in that view.

Geddes considered authoritarian regimes throughout the world, including CPSU in USSR and PRI in Mexico in What do we know about democratization after twenty years?

Leaders of single-party regimes also face competition from rivals, but most of the time, as in personalist regimes, the benefits of cooperation are sufficiently large to insure continued support from all factions. Leadership struggles and succession crises occur, but except in some extraordinary situations, ordinary cadres always want to remain in office. During leadership struggles, most ordinary cadres just keep their heads down and wait to see who wins. Thus, in contrast to military regimes, leadership struggles within single-party regimes do not usually result in transitions.


Pointedly, I think, she did not consider CCP in her analysis.  Since 1949, there has been no transition, so she cannot add CCP to her data base.  But in 2019, Xi Jinping has made himself the indispensable leader and it appears he will remain so for a decade or more.  I wonder if she would now, in 2019, consider CCP to be an amalgam of a personalist and an authoritarian regime.  This would have implications for CCP internal resilience, since personalized regimes do develop factions and internal opposition more so than authoritarian regimes that share power, as CCP has done since the death of Mao.

The Party remains strong without Xi, and although Xi has put rivals in jail (Bo Xilai, Xu Caihou, Ling Jihua) and the anti-corruption campaign has ignored transgressions of his associates in Zhejiang and Shanxi, we can’t really call his ascension a seizure of power.  Nevertheless, he has amassed to himself more power than any leader since Mao, and continues to be the sole arbiter of policy.  The cult of Xi is certainly what one would expect in a personalist regime.  My own feeling is that CCP under Xi is an amalgam of personalist and single party regime, and therein lies the danger to CCP when Xi is perceived as weak.  The knives will come out for the Xi loyalists, who will have no great backing from colleagues and many colleagues will have scores to settle from years, perhaps a decade or more, ago.   A personalist regime maintains control by rewarding a small group of loyalists, and thus factions are created just outside that group.  There is no indication that Xi is rewarding loyalists, other than by keeping them out of jail for life.  This is a significant benefit, but the monetary benefits to family and associates are also curtailed.  As Geddes says of personalist regimes, defections from the ruling group are likely.

One is reminded of the persistence of a Confucian elite in Chinese dynastic change.  While there could be political opposition from within that elite, the general tendency was for the elite to preserve itself through dynastic change, a variation on Benjamin Franklin’s warning in another time - "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."  Most Chinese elite over the centuries most assuredly did not rock the boat, even with foreigners as the ruling elite.  Initial opposition to Xi would not come from the midlevels, though.  That is why someone like Bo Xilai, a member of the Central Committee, was so threatening to Xi.  The greatest danger to Xi lies in Central Committee members who were quite content in pre-Xi days.  Soon, most of that group will relinquish membership.  But they will not relinquish power.

Machiavelli, The Prince - It is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.

Single party regimes can be stable over long periods.  Personalist regimes, with a single ultimate ruler, less so.  Michael Corleone learned that.