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China celebrates 70 years of communist rule. What explains the resilience of its regime?

In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party survived popular unrest — while Europe’s communist regimes did not.

- October 7, 2019

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) recently celebrated its 70th birthday — and now, in the view of many analysts, claims the distinction of history’s longest-lived communist regime. I reached out to Martin K. Dimitrov, professor of political science at Tulane University, for his insights on Chinese politics and comparative authoritarianism.

Jessica Chen Weiss: Other communist states — notably the U.S.S.R. — collapsed years ago. Why did these communist regimes fail, and what explains the resilience of China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?

Martin K. Dimitrov: Scholars have not reached a consensus on this question, but my own sense is that there are three factors that greatly increase the likelihood of collapse: an inhospitable international environment, elite defections and mass discontent. In 1989, both China and Eastern Europe experienced elite defections and popular discontent. China was able to put down the protests through repression, while most East European states did not even try to use force. (Romania did, with disastrous consequences for the regime.)

The crucial difference is that there were far fewer constraints on the government in China. Popular discontent was limited to the one-fifth of the population who were city dwellers — and elite defections were exceptional. Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was a minority supporter of the protesters among the top leadership.

In Eastern Europe, there was discontent in both urban and rural areas. In Eastern European countries such as the German Democratic Republic, reformist factions in the party were so strong that they were able to vote the hard-line incumbents out of office. However, the revolutionary impulses were so powerful that these new party leaders lasted only for a few months and then the entire system collapsed.

Another difference had to do with the international environment. In Eastern Europe, Western ideas flowed in but capital stayed out. In China, the obverse was true — capital flowed in but Western influence was much less pervasive. Eastern Europe also formed a military and economic bloc with the Soviet Union, which limited the capacity of political hard-liners to survive once the Soviet Union’s reformist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, decided that they needed to be replaced. No similar bloc dynamics were present in China.

For these reasons, repression was more likely to succeed in China than in Eastern Europe. The Chinese leaders made a calculated gamble to deploy force against the protesters occupying Tiananmen Square. The gamble paid off. However, regime survival is not synonymous with resilience — since 1989, China has ensured resilience through continuous adaptive changes aimed at binding both the elites and the masses to the regime, to avoid another Tiananmen.

JCW: What are the most pressing challenges you see to the CCP’s continued rule?

MKD: Elite splits, mass unrest — especially in cities — and international factors would top most scholars’ lists. However, thus far the CCP has managed all of these threats successfully. Although there is lack of elite cohesion, there’s no clearly identifiable charismatic challenger to Xi Jinping.

Bo Xilai, CCP head in Chongqing, had the potential to play that role, but the attempted coverup of the cyanide poisoning of a British citizen by Bo’s wife brought his political demise in 2012. Should a credible challenger to Xi Jinping emerge, the probability of elite splits would increase significantly.

But would Xi Jinping’s concentration of power alienate others within the CCP elite, who would feel that their career advancement prospects are diminished? This scenario could threaten the capacity of the CCP to endure.

Elite alienation played a key role in the East European collapses, as it raised the likelihood of elite defection. The East European examples suggest that elite defection, when it occurs en masse, can have two different consequences. In one scenario, reformists vote the incumbent out of office and assume the leadership of the party. In the other, which is illustrated by Boris Yeltsin’s challenge to Gorbachev, discontented elites can resign from the party altogether and form an alternative political movement. Both scenarios are currently unlikely in China, but they illustrate the extreme effects that elite disunity can have on the political stability of single-party communist systems.

The second threat is organized popular unrest. Chinese citizens have grievances — stemming from issues like the nonpayment of wages, forced demolition of housing and illegal land grabs. Other complaints are political and concern the ethno-linguistic and religious rights of ethnic minorities, members of underground churches and Falun Gong practitioners. The Chinese government devotes extraordinary financial outlays to stability maintenance, which aims to avoid protests altogether — or, should they occur, to prevent their spread to new localities. It remains to be seen how much longer Beijing can sustain this very costly policy.

A third potential threat could come from outside of China. Cultural security, which the CCP understands as limiting foreign influence, is officially part of China’s national security doctrine. Foreign NGOs have faced an increasingly hostile climate in China in the past decade, neutralizing their capacity to help organize discontent. This makes it easier for the government to handle isolated riots and protests.

JCW: How has China’s example and outreach affected the trajectory of other post-communist regimes? Has the CCP’s success inspired other governments to emulate China?

MKD: A number of countries seem to admire China’s model of high-growth authoritarianism. For example, a decade ago, Vladimir Putin sent a United Russia delegation to China to learn from the CCP. Russia’s designation of NGOs as foreign agents and its most recent efforts to censor the Internet display some striking similarities with the Chinese experience.

Communist regimes offer more direct evidence of “borrowing” CCP moves. Cuba’s new constitution implemented term limits for the presidency. Thus, Cuba is emulating the pre-Xi forms of institutional succession.

Vietnam seems to be borrowing another part of the Chinese model by fusing together the positions of general secretary and president, both of which have been occupied by Nguyen Phu Trong since 2018.

Yet as communist regimes elsewhere adopt portions of its institutional setup, China is evolving. The CCP moved away from a two-term limit for the general secretary — in line with other regimes in Central Asia and Africa, where heads of state have become presidents for life. Does this mean that the CCP’s institutionalized turnover is not a necessary ingredient for resilience? Time will tell whether this conclusion is correct.