The Coming Crisis of China’s One-Party Regime

CLAREMONT – On October 1, to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, Chinese President Xi Jinping will deliver a speech that unreservedly celebrates the Communist Party of China’s record since 1949. But, despite Xi’s apparent confidence and optimism, the CPC’s rank and file are increasingly concerned about the regime’s future prospects – with good reason.

In 2012, when Xi took the reins of the CPC, he promised that the Party would strive to deliver great successes in advance of two upcoming centennials, marking the founding of the CPC in 1921 and the People’s Republic. But a persistent economic slowdown and rising tensions with the United States will likely sour the CPC’s mood during the 2021 celebrations. And the one-party regime may not even survive until 2049.

While there is technically no time limit on dictatorship, the CPC is approaching the longevity frontier for one-party regimes. Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party retained power for 71 years (1929-2000); the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ruled for 74 years (1917-1991); and Taiwan’s Kuomintang held on for 73 years (from 1927 to 1949 on the mainland and from 1949 to 2000 in Taiwan). The North Korean regime, a Stalinist family dynasty that has ruled for 71 years, is China’s only contemporary competition.

But historical patterns are not the only reason the CPC has to be worried. The conditions that enabled the regime to recover from the self-inflicted disasters of Maoism and to prosper over the last four decades have largely been replaced by a less favorable – and in some senses more hostile – environment.

The greatest threat to the Party’s long-term survival lies in the unfolding cold war with the US. During most of the post-Mao era, China’s leaders kept a low profile on the international stage, painstakingly avoiding conflict while building strength at home. But by 2010, China had become an economic powerhouse, pursuing an increasingly muscular foreign policy. This drew the ire of the US, which began gradually to shift from a policy of engagement toward the confrontational approach evident today.

With its superior military capabilities, technology, economic efficiency, and alliance networks (which remain robust, despite President Donald Trump’s destructive leadership), the US is far more likely to prevail in the Sino-American cold war than China. Though an American victory could be Pyrrhic, it would more than likely seal the CPC’s fate.

The CPC also faces strong economic headwinds. The so-called Chinese miracle was fueled by a large and youthful labor force, rapid urbanization, large-scale infrastructure investment, market liberalization, and globalization – all factors that have either diminished or disappeared.

Radical reforms – in particular, the privatization of inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the end of neo-mercantilist trading practices – could sustain growth. But, despite paying lip service to further market reforms, the CPC has been reluctant to implement them, instead clinging to policies that favor SOEs at the expense of private entrepreneurs. Because the state-owned sector forms the economic foundation of one-party rule, the prospect that CPC leaders will suddenly embrace radical economic reform is dim.

Domestic political trends are similarly worrying. Under Xi, the CPC has abandoned the pragmatism, ideological flexibility, and collective leadership that served it so well in the past. With the Party’s neo-Maoist turn – including strict ideological conformity, rigid organizational discipline, and fear-based strongman rule – the risks of catastrophic policy mistakes are rising.

To be sure, the CPC will not go down without a fight. As its grip on power weakens, it will probably attempt to stoke nationalism among its supporters, while intensifying repression of its opponents.

But this strategy cannot save China’s one-party regime. While nationalism may boost support for the CPC in the short term, its energy will eventually dissipate, especially if the Party fails to deliver continued improvement in living standards. And a regime that is dependent on coercion and violence will pay dearly in the form of depressed economic activity, rising popular resistance, escalating security costs, and international isolation.

This is hardly the uplifting picture Xi will present to the Chinese people on October 1. But no amount of nationalist posturing can change the fact that the unraveling of the CPC’s rule appears closer than at any time since the end of the Mao era.

By Minxin Pei

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. 

Oped in arrangement between The Bhutanese and Project Syndicate (Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019)

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