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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Minxin Pei: Communist China's Perilous Phase

May 4, 2012

Disunity among the ruling elites and the rising defiance of dissidents signal that one-party rule could be nearing its end.


Nowadays Chinese leaders seem too busy putting out fires to think about their regime's long-term survival. Last month, they had to dispatch Politburo member Bo Xilai in a messy power struggle on the eve of a leadership transition. This past week, the daring escape of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng from illegal house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing provoked another crisis. When rulers of one of the most powerful countries in the world have to worry about the defiant acts of a blind man, it's high time for them to think the unthinkable: Is the Communist Party's time up?

Asking such a question seems absurd on the surface. If anything, the party has thrived since its near-death experience in Tiananmen in 1989. Its ranks have swelled to 80 million. Its hold on power, bolstered by the military, secret police and Internet censors, looks unshakable.

Yet, beneath this façade of strength lie fundamental fragilities. Disunity among the ruling elites, rising defiance of dissidents, mass riots, endemic official corruption—the list goes on. For students of democratic transitions, such symptoms of regime decay portend a systemic crisis. Based on what we know about the durability of authoritarian regimes, the Chinese Communist Party's rule is entering its most perilous phase.

To appreciate the mortal dangers lying ahead for the party, look at three numbers: 6,000, 74 and seven. Statistical analysis of the relationship between economic development and survival of authoritarian regimes shows that few non-oil-producing countries can sustain their rule once per capita GDP reaches $6,000 in purchasing power parity (PPP). Based on estimates by the International Monetary Fund, Chinese GDP per capita is $8,382 in PPP terms ($5,414 in nominal terms).

This makes China an obvious authoritarian outlier. Of the 91 countries with a higher per capita GDP than China now, 68 are full democracies, according to Freedom House, 10 are "partly free" societies, and 13 are "not free." Of the 13 countries classified as "not free," all except Belarus are oil producers. Of the 10 "partly free" countries, only Singapore, Tunisia and Lebanon are not oil producers. Tunisia has just overthrown its long-ruling autocracy. Prospects of democracy are looking brighter in Singapore. As for Lebanon, remember the Cedar Revolution of 2005?

So the socioeconomic conditions conducive to a democratic breakthrough already exist in China today. Maintaining one-party rule in such a society is getting more costly and soon will be utterly futile.

This brings us to the second number, 74—the longest lifespan enjoyed by a one-party regime in history, that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1917-1991). One-party rule in Mexico had only a slightly shorter history, 71 years (1929-2000). In Taiwan, the Kuomintang maintained power for 73 years if we count its time as the ruler of the war-torn mainland before it fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Social scientists have yet to discover why one-party regimes, arguably the most sophisticated of all modern-day autocracies, cannot survive beyond their seventh decade in power. What is important to note is that systemic crises in such regimes typically emerge about a decade before their ultimate fall. In the Soviet Union, it was the combination of the stagnation of the Brezhnev era and the ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan. In Mexico, the stolen presidential election of 1988 delegitimized the Institutional Revolutionary Party's rule.

The Chinese Communist Party has governed for 62 years. If history offers any guidance, it is about to enter its crisis decade, and probably has at most 10-15 years left on its clock.

One possible reason for the demise of one-party rule is the emergence of a counter-elite, composed of talented and ambitious but frustrated individuals kept out of power by the exclusionary nature of one-party rule. To be sure, the party has worked hard to co-opt China's best and brightest. But there are limits to how many top people it can absorb. So the party has a problem summarized by this ratio: 7:1.

Chinese colleges and universities graduate seven million bachelor degree-holders each year. The party admits one million new members with a college education or higher each year, thus leaving out roughly six million newly minted university graduates. Since party membership still is linked to the availability of economic opportunities, a sizable proportion of this excluded group is bound to feel that the system has cheated them.

Many will turn their frustrations against the party. Over the next decade, this group could grow into tens of millions, forming a pool of willing and able recruits for the political opposition.

The odds do not look good for those in Beijing who want to maintain the status quo indefinitely. They must begin thinking about how to exit power gracefully and peacefully. One thing the party should do immediately is end the persecution of potential opposition leaders like Mr. Chen and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner now in Chinese prison. The party will need them as negotiating partners when the transition to democracy eventually begins.

Mr. Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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