CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Humans approaching a hundred normally think of death. But political parties celebrating their centenary, like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will on July 1, are obsessed with immortality.
Such optimism seems strange to the parties that govern dictatorships, because their track record of longevity does not inspire confidence. The fact that no other such party in modern times has survived for a century should worry the Chinese leadership, not rejoice.
One obvious reason for the relatively short lifespan of communist or authoritarian parties is that modern party-dominated dictatorships, unlike democracies, did not emerge until the twentieth century. The Soviet Union, the first such dictatorship, was founded in 1922. The Kuomintang (KMT) in China, a quasi-Leninist party, took nominal control of the country in 1927. The Nazis only took power in Germany only in 1933. Almost all of the communist regimes in the world were established after World War II.
But there is a more fundamental explanation than historical coincidence. The political environment in which dictatorial parties operate implies a much more Hobbesian existence – “wicked, brutal and short” – than that of their Democratic counterparts.
A sure way for dictatorial parties to die is to wage war and lose, a fate that befell the Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists in Italy. But most are stepping down in a much less dramatic (or traumatic) way.
In non-Communist regimes, long-standing, forward-looking parties, such as the KMT in Taiwan and the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico, saw the writing on the wall and launched democratization reforms before to lose all legitimacy. Although these parties were ultimately removed from office, they remained politically viable and subsequently returned to power by winning competitive elections (in Taiwan in 2008 and in Mexico in 2012).
In contrast, communist regimes trying to appease their populations through limited democratic reforms all ended up collapsing. In the former Soviet bloc, the liberalization measures of the 1980s quickly sparked revolutions that threw the Communists – and the Soviet Union itself – into the dustbin of history.
The CCP does not want to dwell on this story during the upcoming centennial festivities. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his colleagues obviously want to project an image of confidence and optimism. But political bravado is no substitute for survival strategy, and once the CCP rules out reform as too dangerous, its available options are extremely limited.
Before Xi came to power in 2012, some Chinese leaders turned to the Singapore model. The Popular Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the city-state without interruption since 1959, seems to have it all: a near-total monopoly of power, competent governance, superior economic performance, and reliable popular support. But the more the CPC watched – and it sent tens of thousands of officials to Singapore to study it – the less it wanted to become a giant version of the PAP. The Chinese Communists certainly wanted to keep the PAP in power, but they did not want to adopt the same methods and institutions that help maintain the supremacy of the PAP.
Of all the institutional ingredients that made PAP’s dominance special, the CCP least likes Singapore’s legalized opposition parties, relatively clean elections, and the rule of law. Chinese leaders understand that these institutions, vital to the success of the PAP, would inevitably weaken the CCP’s political monopoly if they were introduced in China.
Perhaps this is why the Singaporean model lost its luster in the Xi era, while the North Korean model – totalitarian political repression, cult of the supreme leader and juche (economic autonomy) – has become more attractive. Granted, China has yet to become a giant North Korea, but a number of trends over the past eight years have pushed the country in that direction.
Politically, the reign of fear has returned, not only for ordinary people, but also for the CCP elites, as Xi reinstated the purges under the guise of a perpetual anti-corruption campaign. Censorship is at its highest in the post-Mao era, and the Xi regime has all but eliminated the space for civil society, including NGOs. Authorities have even curbed free-wheeling private entrepreneurs in China with regulatory crackdowns, criminal prosecutions and wealth confiscation.
And Xi has assiduously cultivated a cult of personality. These days, the front page of the People’s Daily is filled with covers of Xi’s activities and his personal decrees. The CCP’s Short History, recently published on the party’s centenary, devotes a quarter of its content to Xi’s eight years in power, while giving only half room to Deng Xiaoping, the real savior of the CCP.
Economically, China has yet to fully embrace juche. But the CCP’s new five-year plan projects a vision of technological self-sufficiency and economic security centered on domestic growth. Although the party has a reasonable excuse – America’s strategy of economic and technological decoupling leaves it no alternative – few Western democracies will want to remain economically coupled with a country that sees North Korea as its future political model.
When the Chinese leadership celebrates the centenary of the CCP, they should ask themselves if the party is on the right track. If not, the next CPC milestone could be the last.
Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. © Project Syndicate, 2021.
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