CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Human beings approaching 100 normally think about death. But political parties celebrating their centennial, as the Communist Party of China (CPC) will on July 1, are obsessed with immortality.
Such optimism seems odd for parties that rule dictatorships, because their longevity record does not inspire confidence. The fact that no other such party in modern times has survived for a century should give China’s leaders cause for worry, not celebration.
One obvious reason for the relatively short lifespan of communist or authoritarian parties is that party-dominated modern dictatorships, unlike democracies, emerged only in the twentieth century. The Soviet Union, the first such dictatorship, was founded in 1922. The Kuomintang (KMT) in China, a quasi-Leninist party, gained nominal control of the country in 1927. The Nazis did not come to power in Germany until 1933. Nearly all of the world’s communist regimes 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 an existence that is far more Hobbesian — “nasty, brutish and short” — than that of their democratic counterparts.
One sure way for dictatorial parties to die is to wage a war and lose, a fate that befell the Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy. But most exit power in a far less dramatic (or traumatic) fashion.
In noncommunist regimes, long-standing and forward-looking ruling parties, such as the KMT in Taiwan and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, saw the writing on the wall and initiated democratizing reforms before they lost all legitimacy. Although these parties were eventually voted out of office, they remained politically viable and subsequently returned to power by winning competitive elections (in Taiwan in 2008 and Mexico in 2012).
In contrast, communist regimes trying to appease their populations through limited democratic reforms have all ended up collapsing. In the former Soviet bloc, liberalizing measures in the 1980s quickly triggered revolutions that swept the communists — and the Soviet Union itself — into the dustbin of history.
The CPC does not want to dwell on that history during its 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 a survival strategy, and once the CPC rules out reform as too dangerous, its available options are extremely limited.
Before Xi came to power in 2012, some Chinese leaders looked to Singapore’s model. The People’s 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 dependable popular support. But the more the CPC looked — and it dispatched tens of thousands of officials to Singapore to study it — the less it wanted to become a giant version of the PAP. China’s communists certainly wanted to have the PAP’s hold on power, but they did not want to adopt the same methods and institutions that help maintain the PAP’s supremacy.
Of all the institutional ingredients that have made the PAP’s dominance special, the CPC least likes Singapore’s legalized opposition parties, relatively clean elections and rule of law. Chinese leaders understand that these institutions, vital to the PAP’s success, would fatally weaken the CPC’s political monopoly if introduced in China.
That is perhaps why the Singapore model has lost its luster in the Xi era, whereas the North Korean model — totalitarian political repression, a cult of the supreme leader and juche (economic self-reliance) — has grown more appealing. True, China has not yet become a giant North Korea, but a number of trends over the last eight years have moved the country in that direction.
Politically, the rule of fear has returned, not only for ordinary people, but also for the CPC’s elites, as Xi has reinstated purges under the guise of a perpetual anti-corruption campaign. Censorship is at its highest level in the post-Mao era and Xi’s regime has all but eliminated space for civil society, including NGOs. The authorities have even reined in China’s freewheeling private entrepreneurs with regulatory crackdowns, criminal prosecution and confiscation of wealth.
And Xi has assiduously nurtured a personality cult. These days, the front page of the People’s Daily newspaper is filled with coverage of Xi’s activities and personal edicts. The abridged history of the CPC, recently released to mark the party’s centennial, devotes a quarter of its content to Xi’s eight years in power, while giving only half as much space to Deng Xiaoping, the CPC’s true savior.
Economically, China has yet to embrace juche fully. But the CPC’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 China’s leaders toast the CPC’s centennial, they should ask whether the party is on the right track. If it is not, the CPC’s upcoming milestone may be its last.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.© Project Syndicate, 2021.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.