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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Opinion: China's Modern Authoritarianism

May 26, 2009

The Communist Party's ultimate goal is to stay in power, not to liberalize.
By PERRY LINK and JOSHUA KURLANTZICK
The Wall Street Journal Asia.
May 25, 2009

In the wake of the 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy
protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the
Chinese Communist Party seemed morally bankrupt.
Average Chinese complained bitterly about graft
and special privileges reserved for the Party's
elite, and few believed the Party's sloganeering
about socialism when officials practiced ruthless
capitalism. The army, too, had lost face: The
Tiananmen killings showed that the "people's
army" could open fire on the people themselves.
The urban economy seemed locked within an
inefficient and corrupt iron framework of the old
work-unit system. No one either inside or outside
China saw the country's authoritarian system as a model to follow.

Twenty years later, the Chinese Communist Party
has built a new popularity by delivering
staggering economic growth and cultivating a
revived -- and potentially dangerous -- Han
Chinese nationalism. China's material successes,
as seen in its gleaming city skylines and piles
of foreign currency holdings, suggest the
government's top priority is economic growth. The
increasing socioeconomic diversity in Chinese
society suggests that the regime seeks
liberalization and might one day throw open its political system.

These are dangerous misconceptions. The Party's
top priority remains what it has always been: the
maintenance of absolute political power. Economic
growth has not sparked democratic change, as
one-party rule persists. Through a sophisticated
adaptation of its system -- including leveraging
the market to maintain political control --
China's Communist Party has modernized its authoritarianism to fit the times.

The Party has utilized a sophisticated strategy
to maintain control of its populace. While
growing the economy, it has kept the majority of
wealth in the hands of an elite class of business
leaders, many of whom have willingly accepted
authoritarian rule in exchange for getting rich.
Far from forming a middle class that might
challenge authority, these groups now have reason
to join their rulers in repressing "instability"
among the people. Meanwhile, the Party has also
deliberately stoked and shaped Chinese
nationalism, and many inside China now feel pride
in the government's model of authoritarian
development, especially as the model of liberal
capitalism staggers in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Despite its tailored suits and suave diplomats,
the Party also maintains a key tool in inducing
popular obedience that dates to Mao's era, a
technique called "thoughtwork." This ideological
enforcement today operates more subtly than in
the past, but it is still highly effective. It is
covert -- accomplished, for example, through
confidential telephone calls to newspaper
editors, rather than in banner newspaper
headlines. And it is targeted: Whereas Mao
Zedong-era campaigns aimed to transform society
and even human nature, thoughtwork today focuses
on political issues that are vital to the Party's rule, and lets the rest go.

The effects of thoughtwork are far reaching. The
Party's activities include outright censorship,
but much of the rest of thoughtwork entails the
active cultivation of views that the government
favors among the media, businesspeople and other
opinion leaders in Chinese society. This
assertive side of thoughtwork has become
especially important in recent years. Many
Chinese still harbor complaints about the
government's management of the economy, the
environment and the country's political system.
Particularly in rural areas, it is easy to find
people furious at corruption, land grabs, worker
exploitation, the wealth gap and thuggish repression.

But thoughtwork counters these complaints in two
ways. First, the Party encourages the belief that
the central leadership remains pure and all of
the problems are due to corrupt or uninformed
local officials. Second, the Party simply
distracts its citizens. Demands for clean air,
for instance, are answered with 52 Olympic gold
medals and massive propaganda about the Games.
Displaced homeowners are encouraged to worry
about the Dalai Lama "splitting the motherland."

The Party's adaptive methods of disruption and
distraction have helped maintain control during a
period of rapid change, suggesting a durable
domestic model of authoritarian governance. Even
more worryingly, the government is translating
its success at home into success abroad, where
the "China model" of authoritarian capitalism is
gaining currency. Governments from Syria to Vietnam have sung its praises.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Authoritarian
elites seek formulas for maintaining their power
while also growing their economies. In poor
developing countries, average citizens are
vulnerable to this propaganda, which China
spreads by extending aid and investment with no
human rights strings, running training programs
in China for foreign officials and students,
opening cultural centers such as Confucius
Institutes within foreign universities, and
offering diplomatic cover to repressive regimes
at the United Nations and elsewhere.

China has extended its hand of friendship to many
different types of nations, from harsh regimes --
including those of Sudan, Burma, Uzbekistan,
North Korea and Zimbabwe -- whose leaders are
seeking only financial assistance and protection
at the U.N. and other international bodies, to a
diverse group of developing countries across
Asia, Latin America and Africa that seek
economic, political and cultural ties to China.
The scale of this effort is difficult to
calculate. For example, China trains at least
1,000 Central Asian judicial and police officials
annually, most of whom could be classified as
working in antidemocratic enterprises. Over the
long term, Beijing plans to step up its training
programs for African officials. The scope of
China's broader aid programs is similarly
difficult to quantify, but the World Bank
estimates that China is now the largest lender to African nations.

The China model, although a definite threat to
democratic values, is no juggernaut. Its appeal
abroad will depend in large part on how the
Chinese economy weathers the global downturn, and
how any stumbles it might encounter are perceived
in the developing world. Back at home, the Party
is more frightened of its own citizenry than most
outside observers realize. Chinese citizens are
increasingly aware of their constitutional
rights; a phenomenon that does not fit well with
authoritarianism. The Party may win the affection
of foreign elites, but still faces dissent at
home from local nongovernmental organizations,
civil society and elements of the media.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989,
China's leadership has modernized the country's
economy but also its authoritarianism. And
because the system's flaws are as glaring as its
resilience, its challenge to democracy is a
crisis in the original sense of the word -- the
course of events could turn either way.

Mr. Link co-edited "The Tiananmen Papers"
(PublicAffairs, 2001) and holds the Chancellorial
Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the
University of California at Riverside. Mr.
Kurlantzick is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie
Endowment's China Program. This article is
adapted from a forthcoming essay, "Undermining
Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians" (Freedom
House, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).
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