In the wake of the 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party seemed morally bankrupt. Average Chinese complained bitterly about graft and special privileges reserved for the Party's elite, and few believed the Party's sloganeering about socialism when officials practiced ruthless capitalism. The army, too, had lost face: The Tiananmen killings showed that the "people's army" could open fire on the people themselves. The urban economy seemed locked within an inefficient and corrupt iron framework of the old work-unit system. No one either inside or outside China saw the country's authoritarian system as a model to follow.
Twenty years later, the Chinese Communist Party has built a new popularity by delivering staggering economic growth and cultivating a revived -- and potentially dangerous -- Han Chinese nationalism. China's material successes, as seen in its gleaming city skylines and piles of foreign currency holdings, suggest the government's top priority is economic growth. The increasing socioeconomic diversity in Chinese society suggests that the regime seeks liberalization and might one day throw open its political system.
These are dangerous misconceptions. The Party's top priority remains what it has always been: the maintenance of absolute political power. Economic growth has not sparked democratic change, as one-party rule persists. Through a sophisticated adaptation of its system -- including leveraging the market to maintain political control -- China's Communist Party has modernized its authoritarianism to fit the times.
The Party has utilized a sophisticated strategy to maintain control of its populace. While growing the economy, it has kept the majority of wealth in the hands of an elite class of business leaders, many of whom have willingly accepted authoritarian rule in exchange for getting rich. Far from forming a middle class that might challenge authority, these groups now have reason to join their rulers in repressing "instability" among the people. Meanwhile, the Party has also deliberately stoked and shaped Chinese nationalism, and many inside China now feel pride in the government's model of authoritarian development, especially as the model of liberal capitalism staggers in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Despite its tailored suits and suave diplomats, the Party also maintains a key tool in inducing popular obedience that dates to Mao's era, a technique called "thoughtwork." This ideological enforcement today operates more subtly than in the past, but it is still highly effective. It is covert -- accomplished, for example, through confidential telephone calls to newspaper editors, rather than in banner newspaper headlines. And it is targeted: Whereas Mao Zedong-era campaigns aimed to transform society and even human nature, thoughtwork today focuses on political issues that are vital to the Party's rule, and lets the rest go.
The effects of thoughtwork are far reaching. The Party's activities include outright censorship, but much of the rest of thoughtwork entails the active cultivation of views that the government favors among the media, businesspeople and other opinion leaders in Chinese society. This assertive side of thoughtwork has become especially important in recent years. Many Chinese still harbor complaints about the government's management of the economy, the environment and the country's political system. Particularly in rural areas, it is easy to find people furious at corruption, land grabs, worker exploitation, the wealth gap and thuggish repression.
But thoughtwork counters these complaints in two ways. First, the Party encourages the belief that the central leadership remains pure and all of the problems are due to corrupt or uninformed local officials. Second, the Party simply distracts its citizens. Demands for clean air, for instance, are answered with 52 Olympic gold medals and massive propaganda about the Games. Displaced homeowners are encouraged to worry about the Dalai Lama "splitting the motherland."
The Party's adaptive methods of disruption and distraction have helped maintain control during a period of rapid change, suggesting a durable domestic model of authoritarian governance. Even more worryingly, the government is translating its success at home into success abroad, where the "China model" of authoritarian capitalism is gaining currency. Governments from Syria to Vietnam have sung its praises.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Authoritarian elites seek formulas for maintaining their power while also growing their economies. In poor developing countries, average citizens are vulnerable to this propaganda, which China spreads by extending aid and investment with no human rights strings, running training programs in China for foreign officials and students, opening cultural centers such as Confucius Institutes within foreign universities, and offering diplomatic cover to repressive regimes at the United Nations and elsewhere.
China has extended its hand of friendship to many different types of nations, from harsh regimes -- including those of Sudan, Burma, Uzbekistan, North Korea and Zimbabwe -- whose leaders are seeking only financial assistance and protection at the U.N. and other international bodies, to a diverse group of developing countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa that seek economic, political and cultural ties to China. The scale of this effort is difficult to calculate. For example, China trains at least 1,000 Central Asian judicial and police officials annually, most of whom could be classified as working in antidemocratic enterprises. Over the long term, Beijing plans to step up its training programs for African officials. The scope of China's broader aid programs is similarly difficult to quantify, but the World Bank estimates that China is now the largest lender to African nations.
The China model, although a definite threat to democratic values, is no juggernaut. Its appeal abroad will depend in large part on how the Chinese economy weathers the global downturn, and how any stumbles it might encounter are perceived in the developing world. Back at home, the Party is more frightened of its own citizenry than most outside observers realize. Chinese citizens are increasingly aware of their constitutional rights; a phenomenon that does not fit well with authoritarianism. The Party may win the affection of foreign elites, but still faces dissent at home from local nongovernmental organizations, civil society and elements of the media.
Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, China's leadership has modernized the country's economy but also its authoritarianism. And because the system's flaws are as glaring as its resilience, its challenge to democracy is a crisis in the original sense of the word -- the course of events could turn either way.