After nearly 70 years in power, China’s one-party regime is approaching the longevity frontier for dictatorship amid an economic slowdown and tensions with the US.
A crackdown on opponents and an emphasis on nationalism may boost support in the short term but staying in power to celebrate the party’s centenary will be a challenge.
On October 1, to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, Chinese President Xi Jinping will deliver a speech that unreservedly celebrates the Communist Party’s record since 1949. But despite Xi’s apparent confidence and optimism, the party’s rank and file are increasingly concerned about the regime’s future prospects – with good reason.
In 2012, when Xi took the party reins, he promised that it would strive to deliver great successes in advance of two upcoming centennials marking the founding the party in 1921 and the republic in 1949. But a persistent economic slowdown and rising tensions with the United States are likely to sour party mood during the 2021 celebrations. And the one-party regime may not even survive until 2049.
While there is technically no time limit on dictatorship, the party is approaching the longevity frontier for one-party regimes. Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party retained power for 71 years (1929-2000); the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ruled for 74 years (1917-1991); and Taiwan’s Kuomintang held on for 73 years (1927-1949 on the mainland and 1949-2000 in Taiwan). The North Korean regime, a Stalinist family dynasty that has ruled for 71 years, is China’s only contemporary competition.
But historical patterns are not the only reason for the party to be worried. The conditions that enabled the regime to recover from the self-inflicted disasters of Maoism and to prosper over the last four decades have largely been replaced by a less favourable – and in some senses, more hostile – environment.
The greatest threat to the party’s long-term survival lies in the unfolding cold war with the US. During most of the post-Mao era, China’s leaders kept a low profile on the international stage, painstakingly avoiding conflict while building strength at home. But by 2010, China had become an economic powerhouse, pursuing an increasingly muscular foreign policy. This drew the ire of the US, which began gradually to shift from a policy of engagement towards today’s confrontational approach.
With its superior military capabilities, technology, economic efficiency, and alliance networks (which remain robust, despite President Donald Trump’s destructive leadership), the US is far more likely to prevail in the Sino-American cold war than China. Though an American victory could be pyrrhic, it would more than likely seal the party’s fate.
The party also faces strong economic headwinds. The so-called Chinese miracle was fuelled by a large and youthful labour force, rapid urbanisation, large-scale infrastructure investment, market liberalisation, and globalisation – all factors that have either diminished or disappeared.
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Radical reforms – in particular, the privatisation of inefficient state-owned enterprises and the end of neo-mercantilist trading practices – could sustain growth. But, despite paying lip service to further market reforms, the party has been reluctant to implement them, instead clinging to policies that favour state firms at the expense of private entrepreneurs. Because the state-owned sector forms the economic foundation of one-party rule, the prospect that party leaders will suddenly embrace radical economic reform is dim.
Domestic political trends are similarly worrying. Under Xi, the party has abandoned the pragmatism, ideological flexibility, and collective leadership that served it so well in the past. With the party’s neo-Maoist turn – including strict ideological conformity, rigid organisational discipline, and fear-based strongman rule – the risks of catastrophic policy mistakes are rising.
To be sure, the party will not go down without a fight. As its grip on power weakens, it will probably attempt to stoke nationalism among its supporters, while intensifying repression of its opponents.
But this strategy cannot save China’s one-party regime. While nationalism may boost support for the party in the short term, its energy will eventually dissipate, especially if the party fails to deliver continued improvement in living standards.
This is hardly the uplifting picture Xi will present to the Chinese people on October 1. But no amount of nationalist posturing can change the fact that the unravelling of party rule appears closer than at any time since the end of the Mao era.