Es, China’s Com­mu­nist Party has been vig­or­ous in sup­press­ing dis­sent and crush­ing po­ten­tial chal­lenges. But some ar­gue that it has sur­vived in part by de­vel­op­ing un­usu­ally strong in­sti­tu­tions, bound by strict rules and norms. Two of the most im­por­tant hav

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - WEEKLY EXPLAINER -

When the Com­mu­nist Party an­nounced that it would end pres­i­den­tial term lim­its, al­low­ing Xi Jin­ping to hold of­fice in­def­i­nitely, it shat­tered those norms. It may also have ac­cel­er­ated what many schol­ars be­lieve is China’s col­li­sion course with the forces of his­tory it has so long man­aged to evade.

That his­tory sug­gests that Bei­jing’s lead­ers are on what for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton once called a “fool’s er­rand”: try­ing to up­hold a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that can­not sur­vive in the mod­ern era. But Xi, by shift­ing to­ward a strong­man style of rule, is dou­bling down on the idea that China is dif­fer­ent and can re­fash­ion an au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism for this age.

If he suc­ceeds, he will not only have se­cured his own fu­ture and ex­tended the fu­ture of China’s Com­mu­nist Party, he may also es­tab­lish a new model for au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism to thrive world­wide.

The harder kind of dic­ta­tor­ship

If Xi stays in of­fice for life, as many now ex­pect, that will only for­mal­ize a process he has un­der­taken for years: strip­ping power away from China’s in­sti­tu­tions and ac­cu­mu­lat­ing it for him­self.

It helps to men­tally di­vide dic­ta­tor­ships into two cat­e­gories: in­sti­tu­tional and per­son­al­ist. The first op­er­ates through com­mit­tees, bu­reau­cra­cies and some­thing like con­sen­sus. The se­cond runs through a sin­gle charis­matic leader.

China, once an al­most So­cratic ideal of the first model, is in­creas­ingly a hy­brid of both. Xi has made him­self “the dom­i­nant ac­tor in fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy” as well as eco­nomic pol­icy, ac­cord­ing to a pa­per by Barry Naughton, a China scholar at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego.

Xi has also led sweep­ing anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paigns that have dis­pro­por­tion­ately purged mem­bers of ri­val po­lit­i­cal fac­tions, strength­en­ing him­self but un­der­min­ing China’s con­sen­sus-driven ap­proach.

This ver­sion of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism is harder to main­tain, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Erica Frantz, a scholar of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism at Michi­gan State Univer­sity. “In gen­eral, per­son­al­iza­tion is not a good de­vel­op­ment,” Frantz said.

The down­sides are of­ten sub­tle. Do­mes­tic pol­i­tics tend to be more volatile, govern­ing more er­ratic and for­eign pol­icy more ag­gres­sive, stud­ies find. But the clear­est risk comes with suc­ces­sion.

“There’s a ques­tion I like to ask Rus­sia spe­cial­ists: ‘If Putin has a heart at­tack to­mor­row, what hap­pens?’” said Mi­lan Svo­lik, a Yale Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist. “No­body knows.”

Xi is un­der­min­ing the in­sti­tu­tion­al­ism that made China’s au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism un­usu­ally re­silient. Col­lec­tive lead­er­ship and or­derly suc­ces­sion, both put in place af­ter Mao Ze­dong’s dis­as­trous ten­ure, have al­lowed for rel­a­tively ef­fec­tive and sta­ble govern­ing.

Ken Opalo, a Ge­orge­town Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, wrote af­ter China’s an­nounce­ment that or­derly tran­si­tions were “per­haps the most im­por­tant in­di­ca­tor of po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.” Life­long pres­i­den­cies, he said, “freeze spe­cific groups of elites out of power. And re­move in­cen­tives for those in power to be ac­count­able and in­no­vate.”

What makes au­thor­i­tar­ian le­git­i­macy

In 2005, Bruce Gil­ley, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, wres­tled with one of the most im­por­tant ques­tions for any gov­ern­ment — is it viewed by its cit­i­zens as le­git­i­mate? — into a nu­mer­i­cal score, de­ter­mined by so­phis­ti­cated mea­sure­ments of how those cit­i­zens be­have.

China, his study found, en­joyed higher le­git­i­macy than many democ­ra­cies and ev­ery other non-democ­racy be­sides Azer­bai­jan. He cred­ited eco­nomic growth, na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment and col­lec­tive lead­er­ship.

But when Gil­ley re­vis­ited his met­rics in 2012, he found that China’s score had plum­meted.

His data showed the lead­ing edge of a force long thought to doom China’s sys­tem. Known as “mod­ern­iza­tion the­ory,” it says that once cit­i­zens reach a cer­tain level of wealth, they will de­mand things like pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity, free ex­pres­sion and a role in gov­ern­ment. Au­thor­i­tar­ian states, un­able to meet these de­mands, ei­ther tran­si­tion to democ­racy or col­lapse amid un­rest.

This chal­lenge, over­come by no other mod­ern au­thor­i­tar­ian regime ex­cept those wealthy enough to buy off their cit­i­zens, re­quires new sources of le­git­i­macy. Eco­nomic growth is slow­ing. Na­tion­al­ism, though once ef­fec­tive at ral­ly­ing sup­port, is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to con­trol and prone to back­fir­ing. Cit­i­zen de­mands are grow­ing.

So China is in­stead pro­mot­ing “ide­ol­ogy and col­lec­tive so­cial val­ues” that equate the gov­ern­ment with Chi­nese cul­ture, ac­cord­ing to re­search by the China scholar Heike Hol­big and Gil­ley. Pa­tri­otic songs and school text­books have pro­lif­er­ated. So have men­tions of “Xi Jin­ping Thought,” now an of­fi­cial ide­ol­ogy.

Xi’s per­son­al­iza­tion of power seems to bor­row from both old­style strong­men and the new­style pop­ulists ris­ing among the world’s democ­ra­cies.

But, in this way, it is a high­risk and par­tial so­lu­tion to China’s needs. A cult of per­son­al­ity can do for a few years or per­haps decades, but not more.

‘Ac­count­abil­ity with­out democ­racy’

China is ex­per­i­ment­ing with a form of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism that, if suc­cess­ful, could close the seem­ingly un­bridge­able gap be­tween what its cit­i­zens de­mand and what it can de­liver.

Au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments are, by def­i­ni­tion, un­ac­count­able. But some towns and small cities in China are open­ing lim­ited, con­trolled chan­nels of pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion. For ex­am­ple, a pro­gram called “Mayor’s Mail­boxes” al­lows cit­i­zens to voice de­mands or com­plaints, and re­wards of­fi­cials who com­ply.

The pro­gram, one study found, sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved the qual­ity of govern­ing and cit­i­zens’ hap­pi­ness with the state. No one would call these towns demo­cratic. But it felt enough like democ­racy to sat­isfy some.

This sort of in­no­va­tion be­gan with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties that ex­pressed their will through lim­ited but per­sis­tent dis­sent and protest. Lily L. Tsai, a Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy scholar, termed it “ac­count­abil­ity with­out democ­racy.”

But Xi’s power grab, by un­der­min­ing in­sti­tu­tions and pro­mot­ing all-or-noth­ing fac­tion­al­ism, risks mak­ing that sort of in­no­va­tion riskier and more dif­fi­cult.

When lead­ers con­sol­i­date power for them­selves, Frantz said, “over time their abil­ity to get a good read on the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal cli­mate di­min­ishes.”

Such com­pli­ca­tions are why Thomas Pepin­sky, a Cor­nell Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, wrote on Twit­ter, “I’m no China ex­pert, but cen­tral­iz­ing power in the hands of one leader sounds like the most typ­i­cal thing that a de­cay­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian state would do.”


Del­e­gates ap­plaud as Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping (bot­tom right) and Chi­nese Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang (bot­tom left) ar­rive for the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress.

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