Regime Change in China?

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – One question that should have been asked about the Chinese Communist Party’s just-completed leadership transition is whether the entire elaborately choreographed exercise was akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The installation of a new leadership may matter little if the end of CCP rule is both foreseeable and highly probable.

Many observers would find this assertion shocking. The CCP, they insist, has proved its resilience since the Tiananmen crisis in 1989 and the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991. Why should predictions of the collapse of CCP rule be taken seriously now?

While the future of China is unpredictable, the durability of its post-totalitarian regime can be estimated with some confidence. China may be unique in many ways, but its one-party rule is hardly exceptional. Indeed, its political order suffers from the same self-destructive dynamics that have sent countless autocratic regimes to their graves.

Among many of the systemic flaws of autocracy, degeneration at the top, epitomized by ever-weaker leaders, is progressive and incurable. The exclusive and closed nature of autocracy bars many talented individuals from rising to senior government positions, owing to a pattern of succession that rewards political loyalty over capabilities. In fact, savvy autocratic rulers favor less talented successors, because they are easier to groom and control on their way to power.

Leadership degeneration accelerates as the autocratic regime ages and grows more bureaucratic. As individuals in such regimes ascend the hierarchy, patronage and risk-aversion become the most critical factors in determining their chances for promotion. Consequently, such regimes grow increasingly sclerotic as they select leaders with stellar resumes but mediocre records.

The most lethal strain of leadership degeneration is escalating predation among the ruling elites.  The most visible symptom is corruption, but the cause is intrinsic to autocratic rule. Typically, first-generation revolutionaries have a strong emotional and ideological attachment to certain ideals, however misguided they may be. But the post-revolutionary elites are ideologically cynical and opportunistic. They view their work for the regime merely as a form of investment. And, like investors, they seek ever-higher returns.

As each preceding generation of rulers cashes in its illicit gains from holding power, the successors are motivated by both the desire to loot even more and the fear that there may not be much left by the time they get their turn at the trough. This is the underlying dynamic driving corruption in China today. In fact, the consequences of leadership degeneration are easy to see: faltering economic dynamism and growth, rising social tensions, and loss of government credibility.

The puzzle is why neither the compelling self-destructive logic of autocratic rule nor the mounting evidence of deteriorating regime performance in China has persuaded even some of the most knowledgeable observers that the end of CCP rule is now a distinct possibility.

An obvious explanation is the power of conventional thinking. Long-ruling regimes – think of the Soviet Communist Party, Indonesia’s Suharto, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – are typically considered invulnerable, even just before they collapse. But those who believe that the CCP can defy both the internal degenerative dynamics of autocracy and the historical record of failed one-party regimes might benefit from reading Leon Trotsky, who knew something about revolutions. Dictatorships are regarded as indestructible before they fall, Trotsky reminds us, but their demise is viewed as inevitable once they are toppled.

Another explanation is fear of contemplating the unknown. CCP rule may not last, but the alternative – state failure and civil chaos – could be far worse than the status quo. But the record of democratic transitions since 1974 suggests that regime change in China is unlikely to be calamitous. The decisive factor will be whether it is initiated and managed by the ruling elites, as in Taiwan, Mexico, Brazil, and Spain. Managed transitions produce more stable democracies. Should such a process occur in China, the CCP could transform itself into a major political party competing with others for power, as formerly autocratic parties have done in Mexico and Taiwan.

Even a disorderly regime transition, however traumatic and chaotic in the short term, could yield a system that, on balance, is an improvement over a stagnant, repressive, and corrupt autocracy. Indonesia’s new democracy may be imperfect, but has thrived despite its initial poor prospects. Likewise, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a deeply flawed hybrid autocracy, is nonetheless a far better place to live than the Soviet Union was.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the remarkable history of the democratic transitions of the past 38 years, it is that when elites and the public reject authoritarian rule, they do their best to make the new system work. Should such a transition occur in China, there is no reason to think that the process and the outcome will be fundamentally different.