By Bruce J. Dickson
The Washington Quarterly
China watchers are often obsessed with the prospects for regime change in that country. During the post-Mao period in China, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP, or simply the Party) has liberalized its control over the economy while protecting its monopoly on political power. Although an increasingly market economy may seem incompatible with a Leninist political system, this is the combination China’s leaders have pursued for almost four decades.
This has led to a vigorous debate among specialists on Chinese politics regarding the fate of the Party and the regime it governs. Some argue that it is fragile, incapable of change, and in danger of collapse.1 According to this view, the Party has not been willing or able to accommodate the social and political changes its economic reforms have brought about. As a result, it has become stagnant and increasingly out of touch with a modernizing China. Others see it as adaptable, even resilient, and note that it faces no imminent threats from an organized opposition.2 In response to societal changes, it has updated its policy agenda and devised new channels for interactions between state and society. While the Party may be slow to identify crisis situations and clumsy in its response to them, it has been flexible enough to remain in power.
Much of this debate centers on elite politics, policymaking, and other institutional features of China’s party-state. In the previous issue of this journal, David Shambaugh and Minxin Pei offered new contributions to this debate.3 They identified a variety of challenges facing the Party such as elite debates on economic policy, leadership succession, and its relationship with an increasingly diversified society. Indeed, similar trends have been identified in the past without the dire consequences that previous authors predicted. Shambaugh and Pei are more circumspect: they believe the full effects of the trends they highlight may not be known for decades to come. Such a long-term perspective, however, does not provide much of a guide as to what may happen in the immediate future. While we should watch for signs of regime decay, we should also take note of what has allowed the regime to survive as long as it has.
What is often overlooked in the debate over regime change in China is the nature of public opinion in China. Various studies have shown high levels of popular support, higher and steadier than most outside observers recognize. These studies also reveal that the Chinese public is dissatisfied with specific policy issues such as the environment, food safety, and the cost and quality of health care and education—similar to the concerns of many American citizens. But popular dissatisfaction with these policy issues is counter-balanced with other sources of regime support such as rising standards of living and nationalist sentiments. As a result, most Chinese do not seek regime change; instead, they prefer that the current regime do a better job dealing with these problems. The growing numbers of protests in China are typically about the quality of governance and working conditions, not about broader issues favoring political reform or democratization. For the foreseeable future, the Party faces no organized opposition and no imminent threats to its hold on power coming from society. Some in China certainly prefer democratization, but they face repression from the state and enjoy little popular support. While we need to be attentive to the possibility that public opinion will turn against the regime or that the growing middle class will seek democratizing reforms, we must also acknowledge that these shifts have not yet occurred.