Thursday, May 5, 2011

How resilient is China's "resilient authoritarianism"?

The essay below was written for the Asia Foundation’s blog, In Asia.

It is interesting to compare the situation today with that in the late 1980s. Then, as now, China was faced with rising inflation, differences within the leadership, stalled political reform, growing corruption, and an international environment undergoing democratic change. The result was the June 4th crisis of 1989.

That said, there remain important differences between the two periods. Today, the divisions within the Chinese elite are narrower, public support for the present system is wider, the government’s ability to manage the economy is somewhat greater, and the attractiveness of the political revolutions outside China is somewhat smaller. Thus, it would be foolish to forecast with any confidence that China is about to experience another crisis just as severe as that in 1989.

Even so, to quote the last sentence of this essay, “The odds are beginning to shift in ways that suggest that the resilience of [the Chinese political] system may be increasingly tested.”

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Many observers both inside and outside China have come to perceive the country’s political system as remarkably resilient. Sustained economic growth, greater political responsiveness, and considerable public satisfaction with the status quo have seemingly created a high degree of political stability. This widely shared assessment of Chinese politics was reflected in the title of a recent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune comparing the situation in China with the “jasmine revolutions” in the Middle East: “Why It Won't Happen in China.”

And yet, there is reason to believe that China’s own leaders are less confident about their country’s stability than these foreign observers. Recent crackdowns on political activists suggest to some a growing nervousness about the future. Are Chinese leaders worrying needlessly? Or do they accurately perceive that their country’s political system may be subject to increasing strain?

Perhaps the most important cause for concern is the increasing level of inflation in China, the result of the flood of foreign capital into the country, China’s chronic foreign trade surpluses, growing labor shortages, and rising global prices for food, energy, and raw materials. If not brought under control, inflation has the potential to create a high degree of popular dissatisfaction. Over the last 20-odd years, China has been beset by numerous public protests over issues ranging from environmental pollution to contaminated food. But almost all of those grievances have been localized and the number of people affected by them has been limited. In contrast, inflation will affect virtually everyone in China, and is already leading to grumbling over rising energy costs and strikes for higher wages.

Second, China is on the verge of a political succession, with a new generation of leaders to be elected at the Eighteenth Party Congress in 2012. Although the succession procedures are now highly institutionalized and the policy differences within the leadership are far less than they were in the 1980s, there remains considerable uncertainty about the composition of the new leadership and how it will address the country’s problems. Moreover, one characteristic pattern of Chinese political life historically has been that dissenters may be emboldened to speak out and act up if they perceive there to be differences among the top leadership.

Third, whatever foreign observers may say, Chinese leaders do appear to be worried about the “jasmine revolutions” in the Middle East and the “color revolutions” that have occurred elsewhere in the world. Theirs is not simply a generalized fear of contagion, but a more specific perception that the same communications technologies that sparked the protests in the Middle East could have an impact on China as well. Recent reports indicate that Chinese activists working both inside and outside the country have begun to create networks that cross local and provincial boundaries, creating a virtual version, however embryonic, of the independent nationwide political organizations that Chinese leaders have long tried to prevent.

And finally, there is the widespread perception that political liberalization in China has stalled. Chinese leaders have once again made clear that pluralistic democracy is not on the agenda, and the pace of more limited types of political reform appears to be controversial. This perception can itself become a further cause of grievance and instability.

All of these developments -- increasing inflation, apparent differences within the political elite, revolutionary protest in the Middle East, and the continuing revolution in communications technology -- make it easy to see why Chinese leaders might be concerned about their country’s stability, and why they are imposing stricter controls on political expression.

China’s political system remains resilient, and there is still considerable popular satisfaction with the country’s achievements. But the odds are starting to shift in ways that suggest that the resilience of that system may be increasingly tested.

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