The end of the Cold War was widely seen as marking the triumph of democratic capitalism as the only viable political and economic system. China appears to have defied that premise, combining authoritarian governance and capitalist economics. Can China sustain this hybrid system, or will it eventually have to democratize to sustain its impressive economic growth?
That question was the subject of the inaugural debate in Carnegie’s “Reframing China Policy” debate series, featuring Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and Roderick MacFarquhar, professor of history and political science and director of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. Minxin Pei, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the debate.
The regime is resilient
Nathan noted that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been able to withstand great disturbances, both abrupt and gradual, such as the Tiananmen uprising, the acceleration of globalization, the emergence of the middle class, and the rise of the Internet. He noted that the CCP has proven resilient because it has taken meaningful policy steps – adopting a more transparent posture on HIV/AIDS, attacking corruption, abolishing agricultural fees and taxes, and constructing a social welfare system.
Of course, he added, the CCP has also strengthened its rule by employing repressive tactics and maintaining elite unity. Nathan argued that the CCP recognized how critical such unity was to its future after it split in 1989.
The CCP is weakening
MacFarquhar countered by observing that several of the historical factors that contributed to the CCP’s stability no longer exist. For example, China no longer has charismatic leaders like Mao who can exercise leadership in times of crisis. He also argued that the Cultural Revolution seriously and irreversibly damaged the CCP’s image. MacFarquhar also pointed to the disappearance of China’s ideological glue, Marxism, asserting that subsequent concepts – for example, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “the harmonious society” – have not gained widespread traction.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which China’s political apparatus would collapse, according to Nathan. “A spark isn’t going to start a prairie fire in China,” he said: an isolated peasant uprising or comparable disturbance is unlikely to culminate in a countrywide conflagration. In fact, he said, the government’s system of repression is designed precisely to preempt that type of occurrence. The Chinese people are highly divided and the upwardly mobile middle class doesn’t want to challenge the CCP regime that enabled their success.
MacFarquhar argued that small sparks can be catalytic – a small disturbance in central China led to the 1911 Revolution, for example. He predicted that worker displacement would be the next such spark.