Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Surviving Tiananmen

HONG KONG – It may be hard to imagine, but 25 years ago, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was nearly toppled by a nationwide pro-democracy movement. It was the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s steely nerves and the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army – dispatched to enforce martial law and suppress the protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – that enabled the regime, at the cost of several hundred civilian lives, to avoid collapse.

On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, two questions stand out: how has the CCP survived the last quarter-century, and can its rule endure for another 25 years?

The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. Policy adjustments, clever tactics of manipulation, and a healthy dose of luck enabled the CCP to win the support it needed to retain power and suppress destabilizing forces.

To be sure, serious mistakes were made. Following the massacre, China’s conservative leaders attempted to reverse the liberalizing reforms that Deng had initiated in the 1980’s, plunging the Chinese economy into recession. And the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991 caused a panic in the CCP.

But Deng again managed to save the Party. Mustering all of his energy and political capital, the 87-year-old leader revived pro-market economic reforms, unleashing an economic revolution that delivered an unprecedented wave of growth and development, thereby boosting the CCP’s credibility considerably.

Deng and his successors buttressed this trend by granting Chinese citizens considerable personal freedoms, fueling the emergence of a culture of crass consumerism and mass entertainment. In this new world of “bread and circuses,” it was far easier for the CCP to regain public support and suppress the opposition. Carefully orchestrated moves to promote Chinese nationalism and exploit xenophobia also helped.

Even repression, the mainstay of the regime’s survival, was fine-tuned. China’s newly acquired wealth enabled its leaders to build one of the world’s most technically sophisticated Internet firewalls and equip its internal security forces with the most effective tools.

In dealing with China’s small but resilient dissident community, the regime depends on the strategy of “decapitation.” In other words, the government eliminates the threat posed by leading opposition figures by jailing them or forcing them into exile, regardless of their prominence. Liu Xiaobo – who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize – was sentenced to 11 years in prison, despite worldwide protest.

However cynical, the approach has worked. But the CCP might not have been quite so successful had it not gotten lucky in a few critical areas. For starters, the post-1992 reforms coincided with a surge of globalization, which provided China with massive capital inflows (about $1 trillion in foreign direct investment since 1992), a slew of new technologies, and virtually unimpeded access to Western consumer markets. China thus became the workshop of the world, with its exports rising more than tenfold by 2007.

Another factor that worked in the regime’s favor was the so-called demographic dividend (an abundant labor force and a relatively small percentage of children and elderly dependents). This provided China with plentiful low-cost labor, while saving the government large expenditures on pensions and health care.

The problem facing the CCP now is that most of the factors that enabled it to survive since Tiananmen either have already disappeared or are headed in that direction. Indeed, for all practical purposes, pro-market reforms are dead. A kleptocracy of government officials, their families, and well-connected businessmen has colonized the Chinese state and is intent on blocking any reforms that might threaten their privileged status.

Moreover, the CCP can no longer count on rising prosperity to sustain public support. Rampant corruption and rising inequality, together with obvious environmental decay, are causing ordinary Chinese – especially the middle class, which once had high hopes for reform – to become increasingly disillusioned.

At the same time, given rapid population aging, China’s demographic dividend has all but dissipated. And, given that China is already the world’s largest exporter, with more than 11% of the global market share, there is little room left for export growth in the coming years.

That leaves only repression and nationalism in the CCP’s post-Tiananmen toolkit. And, indeed, both of them continue to play a central role in President Xi Jinping’s strategy for ensuring the Party’s survival.

But Xi is also experimenting with two new devices: an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign and an attempt to revive pro-market reforms. So far, his war on corruption has made a bigger impact than his plan for economic reform.

On the surface, Xi’s strategy seems sound. But waging war on corrupt officials and pressing for deep reforms aimed at dismantling China’s kleptocracy will inevitably bring Xi into conflict with China’s political and economic elites. The question is how he can overcome their resistance without rallying the Chinese people, whose political mobilization could endanger the one-party system.

The CCP defied the doomsayers after 1989: It survived and preempted any further threats to its power. But the odds that it can hold on for another quarter-century have grown long – and are unlikely to improve.

Read more from "Tiananmen at 25"

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  1. CommentedRicketty Rabbit

    In response to J. Von Hettlingen:
    "Today, thanks to Deng Xiaoping's economic reform, Chinese people are going through all the stages of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. "

    I agree with your general thesis but would add a fine-tuning which I believe makes it even more relevant.

    Maslow's hierarchy is conceptually illustrative but research has not borne it out as an accurate model of human motivation. For a better model, look to Alderfer's "3 Needs" or ERG theory.

    It posits that humans pursue 3 distinct needs simultaneously - Existence (like Maslow's first and part of the second level), Relatedness (like Maslow's 2 to part of 4) and Growth (like Maslow's 4 - 5).

    Alderfer says that when humans are unable to satisfy one of these needs, they'll "overdose" on the others. So, for example, if one is unable to satisfy a growth or relatedness need, one will over consume on existence needs. This behaviour is called "frustration-regeression".

    Frustration-regression is evident in all societies, but perhaps nowhere more than among the comfortable to wealthy in China, for whom their inability in China's political society to satisfy the need for self-determination expresses itself in the pursuit of wealth, material goods and pleasure.

    Rather than progressing through Maslow's hierarchy, many in China are caught in frustration-regression, like essentially dissatisfied materialists in so many other nations.

      Commentedyang guang

      Very complicated really you don't know any thing about Chinese people .

  2. CommentedJeff GE

    This is not a balanced article. China under CCP not just survived Tiananmen but thrived. For the past twenty five years, most Chinese focus mainly on improving the quality of their daily lives. Politics takes the secondary role. Only a small groups of dissidents continue to focus on political issues. There are very significant resentment towards the government but mostly directed on economic issues such as corruption. That is why the new leadership launched unprecedented anti-corruption campaign.

  3. Commentedhari naidu

    You've the audacity to remove my critical commentary on this political propaganda from Taiwan. What are you afraid of - truth or false modesty?

  4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    June 4 will see the 25th anniversary of a violent suppression by the People's Liberation Army of student protests, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people. The Chinese authorities have never provided an official death toll and the events in Tiananmen square remain a taboo. Back in 1989, the "Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was nearly toppled by a nationwide pro-democracy movement". It survived the turmoil, because the leadership resorted to brutality to crush the protests. Today, Mr. Minxin Pei asks, "how has the CCP survived the last quarter-century, and can its rule endure for another 25 years"?
    With its more than 80million-strong membership, the CCP is the biggest political party in the world. Its tight organisation and ruthlessness help explain why it is still in power. The party is the guiding hand in China and oversees and influences many aspects of people's lives.
    Today, thanks to Deng Xiaoping's economic reform, Chinese people are going through all the stages of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. With prospertiy and improved living standards, they have become increasingly aware of ethical and political issues like government accountability, equality and political inclusion. Many have a hard time to live with a party that dictates what they should learn at school and from the media.
    They also raise questions about the significant privileges joining the party brings, like members get access to better information and a network with decision-makers, who can help boost their careers and businesses. Many jobs are only open to members and they shape the lives and social behaviour of the apparatchiks. No doubt personal relationships still play an important role in China. Nevertheless many Chinese feel that it's not fair that who you know counts more than what you can.
    Indeed the next 25 years will be crucial for the party's survival. It's doubtful whether "to build one of the world’s most technically sophisticated Internet firewalls and equip its internal security forces with the most effective tools", would secure its grip on power. The "dissident community" would expand, if no political reforms were made. Instead of focusing on economic growth, China should steer away from quantity and invest in quality - a smaller population, good education, better life quality, cleaner environment, more equality and freedom. A country with a small population can still remain dynamic, if its citizens are happy and motivated.

  5. CommentedWalter Gingery

    Thanks for this provocative alternative to the official story as it shines a critical light on the unfolding events in china's attempts at reform.

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