Halfway to China's Collapse

Today | Western Sources

June 2006
Far Eastern Economic Review
By Gordon G. Chang

The Coming Collapse of China, my book, predicts the fall of the Chinese Communist Party by the end of this decade. We are now at the halfway point between its publication in 2001 and that time. So is China's leading political organization on schedule for a fall?

It certainly does not look like it is. On the contrary, China's mighty one-party state is a wonder to behold. It has sponsored torrid economic growth that is transforming, within a single generation, a destitute agrarian society into a prosperous urban one. The change has been so rapid that, at least according to the weight of global opinion, the Chinese will own the century in which we now live.

By ascending the ranks of nations at an accelerated pace, China is altering our notions of political governance. A few years ago Francis Fukuyama told us that "the evolution of human societies through different forms of government had culminated in modern liberal democracy." China, however, has convinced many analysts that autocracy still has a future. Or as Homer pointed out, "There is strength in the union of very sorry men."

Yet China remains a fragile nation. As China's new leaders successively open their great country, all the forces that apply around the world—political, economic, and social—are beginning to apply in China as well. As this process continues, as China becomes less Chinese, the country's centrally directed political system becomes vulnerable.

So the issue today is not whether the central government is doing the right things or the wrong things. The issue is time. In the next five years, China will face many challenges, some of them unprecedented. We are all familiar with the list of problems: pauperization of the countryside, creation of bad debts in the banking system, accumulation of local government deficits, underfunding of the social-security system, destruction of the environment, corruption of all aspects of society, and erosion of essential social services, to name just the most prominent.

One problem looms especially large. The Chinese have prospered partly because the United States and the West have supported the Beijing regime at critical moments. Yet Beijing cannot automatically count on a friendly international environment in the future. After all, there is a growing belief that the Chinese are threatening the manufacturing base of the West. In late March of this year, the European Union and the United States took the step of jointly filing a World Trade Organization complaint against the country's discriminatory auto-parts tariffs.

Moreover, the consensus to engage China is breaking down as Beijing is increasingly perceived as more assertive than cooperative. China's proliferation of nuclear-weapons technology, its diplomatic and material support of unsavory regimes, and its pursuit of outlandish territorial claims could bring it into conflict with the very countries that have so far patiently engaged it.

Any one of these problems—the old ones as well as the new one—would be difficult for the Communist Party to take. Add them all together, and we can see why the regime could fail. The point is that Beijing faces many challenges all at once, not one challenge at a time.

Even if it could solve each one of these problems in short order, the Communist Party would still face one insurmountable challenge. Those who are optimistic about the future of the P.R.C. point to the economic growth and progress of the last 25 years, but that is precisely why the country's one-party state is in such jeopardy.

Change, history tells us, is tough for reforming regimes. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that peasants in prerevolutionary France detested feudalism more than their counterparts in other portions of Europe, where conditions were worse. Discontent was highest in the most modernized parts of France. Moreover, the French Revolution followed "an advance as rapid as it was unprecedented in the prosperity of the nation." As Tocqueville notes, "steadily increasing prosperity" doesn't tranquilize citizens. On the contrary, it promotes "a spirit of unrest."

Chinese leaders should not take comfort from the fact that Tocqueville was writing about 18th century France. We saw these same trends playing out in late 20th century Thailand and, more important, both in Confucian South Korea two decades ago and Chinese Taiwan just a little later.

Senior Beijing officials now face the dilemma of all reforming autocrats: economic success endangers their continued control. As Harvard University's Samuel Huntington notes, sustained modernization is the enemy of one-party systems. Revolutions occur under many conditions, but especially when political institutions do not keep up with the social forces unleashed by economic change.

So it should come as no surprise that as China has grown more prosperous, it has also become less stable. In fact, there were 58,000 protests in 2003, 74,000 in 2004, and 87,000 last year according to official statistics. These protests are getting larger. Especially in this decade, demonstrators have often numbered in the tens of thousands—a few protests in 2002 in the northeastern part of the country may have even reached the 100,000 mark.

And demonstrations have also become more violent. For example, last December riot police killed at least three villagers in Dongzhou in southern Guangdong Province. Some reports, however, say as many as 20 died protesting the illegal seizure of land to build a power plant. Observers likened this incident to Tiananmen. In 1989, Beijing's students, workers, and common citizens demonstrated peacefully. Protestors in Dongzhou, however, used pipe bombs to attack police formations.

In short, demonstrators have begun to use deadly force as a tactic against local authorities. The violence is a sign of increasing volatility in China and an indication that the Chinese political system is having difficulty in channeling discontent. And take note: most of the worst incidents are occurring in the more prosperous parts of the country.

We are also beginning to see middle-class Chinese—the beneficiaries of a quarter century of reform—take to the streets. They act like peasants and workers whenever they think their rights are threatened. If there is one unifying theme for unrest today, it is the desire for justice, the demand to be treated fairly. That's a hopeful sign for society in general.

But not for the nation's leaders. The Communist Party can do many things, but one of the things it cannot do is to create a society in which everyone has a chance to be heard and to have a day in court. The Party may have abandoned Marxism, but it is trying to develop a new form of Leninism. As a result, it often governs harshly and unfairly.

The Communist Party has become incapable of reinvigorating itself. Once young and vital, it has been eroded by widespread disenchantment, occasional crises, and the enervating effect of the passage of time. The Party may be big, but it is also corrupt, reviled, and often ineffective. It is barely functioning in some areas, having been replaced by clans or gangs. Party leaders have tried to broaden the basis of their organization's support to include everyone in society. The Soviets tried the identical tactic of abandoning the ideology of class struggle, and we know what eventually happened to them. A government cannot represent everyone without representative governance.

In a closed system, Beijing's leaders could move as fast—or as slow—as they pleased. But the real passage of time, previously irrelevant to regime, makes the Communist Party's cumbersome decision-making look like a fatal condition, especially in light of the critical challenges facing the nation in the next few years. Chinese intellectuals criticize Mikhail Gorbachev for reforming too quickly, but the real lesson for China is that change cannot be planned, ordered, or controlled. Mr. Gorbachev initially believed that reform could be imposed from the top in limited doses. He was wrong, because it exploded from the bottom up.

No one should think that the Chinese people will let the cadres control the pace of transformation. At one time Beijing's officials were leading change, but now they're struggling to keep up. Technocrats ponder their five-year plans while everyone else has already entered the future. Deprived for decades, people don't just want more; they demand everything. Beijing can censor, imprison, and suppress, but the Chinese nonetheless manage to carry on national conversations—both online and off—that grow more lively and provocative by the year.

The country's leaders are, of course, doing everything to remain fully in control in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, yet they will be unable to maintain a high level of vigilance. Squeezing too tight now, the Communist Party will eventually have to relax its grip. The increased repression before the Games will undoubtedly aggravate existing tensions in society. The combination of growing alienation and declining government strength should make the last years of this decade a time of even greater instability.

Many nations suffer post-Olympic economic slumps after building booms end, tourists go home, and sponsorship money is spent. Beijing claims uninterrupted growth in gross domestic product since 1976, the year the Cultural Revolution officially ended. Beijing's problem is that no government has ever succeeded in eliminating recessions and depressions. China is unlikely to be the first.

Unfortunately for the regime, seemingly uninterrupted economic growth has bred the notion that prosperity is just part of the natural order, especially along the coast. The result is that gratitude is eroding. The government, therefore, has to constantly validate itself since it no longer represents the vanguard of class struggle and does not rest on the consent of the governed.

The stakes, of course, are high. If growth were to slow, there could be unrest comparable to, say, Indonesia in 1998, when Suharto fell. As Mr. Huntington wrote, "Revolutions often occur when a period of sustained economic growth is followed by a sharp economic downturn." But China's recent history shows that recession is not a precondition for radical anti-state action. The Tiananmen Square incident, after all, followed a period of growth that was merely mismanaged.

The protests in China today may resemble unrest that has existed for generations. Therefore, some argue they are not necessarily signs of impending regime change. Nonetheless, these disruptive events are occurring at a time of great stress in society. As a result, they have the potential to cause government collapse. Chinese people today may not have revolutionary intentions, yet their acts, occurring at this turbulent time, have revolutionary implications. In sum, too much is happening too fast for any government—no matter how institutionalized—to hold on.

Mr. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China (Random House, 2001).