Chinese tightrope walking

19 03 2009

Minxin Pei has an interesting piece on Foreign Affairs.com about the current state of the Chinese Communist Party and the potential dangers the seemingly resilient autocrats in charge are facing as the global economy continues it’s decline.

Every year, the Chinese labor market grows by more than ten million workers, the bulk of whom are leaving the countryside for urban areas in search of employment. Each percentage point of GDP growth translates into roughly one million new jobs a year, which means that China needs GDP to rise at least ten percent every year in order to absorb the influx of laborers.

Yikes.  At a current GDP growth rate of 7% the anecdotal stories of mass exodus of labourers from the major cities back to their rural villages seems likely to be factual.  Does this mean the rural population will begin to blame the CCP or “capitalist imperial powers”?

Minxin thinks the CCP will be in their sights:

Strong economic performance has been the single most important source of legitimacy for the CCP, so prolonged economic stagnation carries the danger of disenchanting a growing middle class that was lulled into political apathy by the prosperity of the post-Tiananmen years. And economic policies that favor the rich have already alienated industrial workers and rural peasants, formerly the social base of the party.

But he doesn’t think there is much danger for CCP mandarins, at least not from the lowly masses anyway:

If those groups were in fact to band together in a powerful coalition, then the world’s longest-ruling party would indeed be in deep trouble. But that is not going to happen. Such a revolutionary scenario overlooks two critical forces blocking political change in China and similar authoritarian political systems: the regime’s capacity for repression and the unity among the elite.

For Minxin, the real threat could be internal disunity among the Communist elite, the ones who have the most to lose in any reversal of fortune for the Party:

Those who talk of China’s “authoritarian resilience” consider elite unity to be one of the CCP’s most significant achievements in recent decades, citing as evidence technocratic dominance, a lack of ideological disputes, the creation of standardized procedures for the promotion and retirement of high officials, and the relatively smooth leadership succession from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao.

But there are reasons to remain skeptical of such apparent harmony — arrangements of power that are struck in times of economic prosperity often come undone when crisis hits.

The elite, he says, have been virtually paid off by the State via enormous amounts of pork in the economic apparatus of the country.  If that begins to dry up there is no loyalty to a grand leader that will keep the elite in line.

Rising social discontent may not be enough to force the party out of power, but it might be sufficient to tempt some members of the elite to exploit the situation to their own political advantage. Such political entrepreneurs could use populist appeals to weaken their rivals and, in the process, open up divisions within the party’s seemingly unified upper ranks.

Although fragmentation in the leadership is surely possible, I tend to feel that if that were a likely outcome we would have seen something of this “political entrepreneurship” from a leader-in-waiting who would see the obvious advantage and try to fill the obvious void, but at Pei notes:

No single individual [in the CCP leadership] towers above the others in terms of demonstrated leadership, vision, or performance …

Minxin believes this sets the stage for possible “jockeying for preeminence” among the top brass, but it just as likely sets the stage for a non-entity caretaker leader (in the post Wen/Hu period), not concerned about his own aggrandizement (read old and/or infirm here) to assume the reigns and weather the economic storm.  One must remember that although the elite have been enjoying amassing and consuming vast amounts of wealth in the last two decades they are more likely, when faced with unrest in the nation, to accept somewhat less wealth, knowing that there is comfort in controlling at least what wealth there is, rather than taking a chance on no wealth at all.

However, in a country with the resources, potential and drive to be the world’s preeminent power, it is only a matter of time until some individual or group within the Politburo Standing Committee (the country’s de facto top power organ) rises to the challenge and provides China with some specific direction and ambition.

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