China Confronts Revolution

This article makes clear that arevolution in Chinawill be tough to initiate or even sustained. The fact is that hundreds of local demonstrations are countenanced on anongoing basis mostly because it airs local grievances and helps the centralgovernment bring some accountability to the lower levels.

The other unspoken reason is thatanyone can see that the next step for China is easily implemented andneeds only a local reformer or a spark at a local level to set it in motion.

That step is the adoption ofgeneral elections at the local levels that permits broader inclusion of nonparty leaders.  They already have anapparatus in place and simple tweaks will open the franchise.  It could even be staged in.  Recall the classical franchise developmentwas largely staged.

Once the process begins, howevergrudgingly and staged, activist’s energy will be channeled into making it workand to make it properly inclusive.

From that emerging base,democratic pressure will soon subsume the higher levels by throwing upattractive reformist leadership.

 The central government has held back on thefree flow of ideas mostly to prevent anything running out of control.  Their escape from this pressure cooker is todivert as above and it must happen sooner than later.

By Adam Wolfe

The “days of rage” sweeping through the Middle East and NorthAfrica (MENA) have raised questions about the possibility of a similar movementerupting in China.At a glance, the ingredients for uprising appear to be present. Online callsfor a “Jasmine Revolution” in Chinaresulted in a massive staging of security forces at the planned protest sites,which could be taken as a sign of the Communist Party’s insecure grip onpower. Like several of the MENA governments, China’s ruling elite is plagued bycorruption and is preparing for a transfer of power. Inequality hasdevolved to Sub-Saharan levels, and the political system provides few outletsfor popular grievances to be aired. However, China is unlikely to face a popularuprising for six reasons, discussed in more depth in our latest China Monthly.

First, and most importantly, China’s party rule implies that a larger segment of thepopulation is represented by or dependent on the government than in the MENAregion’s autocratic systems. While the vast majority of the population haslittle say in how China is run, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)cannot maintain its rule by providing private goods only to a narrowsegment of the population. Instead, the CCP provides a mix of privateand public goods to its 80 million members and those other elites whomight otherwise challenge its rule. Instead of forming a restive middle class,those who have managed to move up the income ladder largely have become theCCP’s support base. Additionally, the CCP has institutionalized the transfer ofpower between generations, a process seen as more legitimate than the geriatricMENA leaders’ attempts to transfer power to their sons.

Second, Chinahas maintained strong economic growth throughout the reform period, with fewspells of high inflation. Strong growth increases the incentives for rulers tomaintain power (as it makes political monopoly more valuable) and decreases thethreat to their power by legitimizing their rule. A monetary overhang anddemand-side pressures are driving China’s inflation higher this year, but the Party will doeverything it can on the supply side to contain inflation expectations.

Third, while official corruption plagues China, it appears highly decentralized.It is local officials who confiscate land from citizens for development, ignoreenvironmental regulations to boost industrial output and benefit from ajudicial system that remains incapable of challenging their authority. Thisdynamic explains the apparent mismatch between survey data that suggest Chinese citizens are largelysatisfied with national conditions and the tens of thousands of protests andmass incidents reported each year.

Fourth, while unemployment among college graduates and a skewed sexratio are problems in China,there is no youth bulge to provide the tinder for an uprising along the linesof those in the MENA region. As China’s bountiful labor force has begun to disappearin the coastal export hubs, a significant portion of the young population hasenjoyed brighter future prospects and wage hikes.

Fifth, from the “Great Firewall” to the systematic arrest of anypotential opposition leaders, the CCP has been successful in disruptingstrategic coordination among potential adversaries. This year, China willspend RMB624 billion (US$95 billion) on internal security, more than it plans to spend on its military. Human RightsWatch’s Nicholas Bequelin reported that since calls for aJasmine Revolution first appeared on microblogs, China’ssecurity forces have “rounded up, detained, or placed under house arrest morethan 100 people nationwide.” The CCP’s panoptic monitoring of online forumsrequires activists to either use VPN services that only a relatively rich,urban segment of the population can access or disguise their complaints incoded language that limits the message to a narrow demographic alreadyinitiated into the cause.

Finally, there is no strong voice for reform within the CCP along thelines of Hu Yaobing, Zhou Ziyang or Bao Tong in the 1980s. In2010, Premier Wen Jiabao made several public calls for political reform that raised hopesamong Western commentators and Chinese liberals that Wen’s bleeding heart wasshining through in his final years in the Zhongnanhai. However, politicalreform was not on the agenda at the Fifth Plenary Session of the17th Central Committee in October 2010, and Wen’s comments did notdepart significantly from standard CCP messaging on gradual intra-Partypolitical reforms.

Still, each of the silver clouds listed above has a black lining: Partyrule means decentralized power that opens opportunities for corruption, stronggrowth creates the incentives and the means for an opposition group tochallenge CCP rule and China’s demographics may eventually create problems forthe CCP’s leadership. Perhaps the most important threat to the CCP’s legitimacyin the medium term will be the slowing of Chinese economic growth. Demographics andmalinvestment will soon bite into China’s potential growth, anddithering on financial-sector reforms raises the prospect of a sharpcontraction in the medium term. In the past, it has taken anemic growth andfiscal woes to topple Communist governments. The Party’s emphasis on economicprogress over political reform is likely to continue, which could allow theclouds on the horizon to darken further.

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