Edward Steinfeld’s account of revolutionary changes in China’s economy and society over the past 30 years is compelling and on the mark. He is correct to warn that we should not underestimate remarkable cumulative changes in Chinese society and the economy, which have important and largely irreversible political implications. But his argument avoids an elephant in the room: China still has a Soviet-style political system that has changed little over the past two decades.
This is not a garden-variety personal or military dictatorship. There are only four other regimes structured like China’s, in Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba. China’s network of Communist Party organizations, its conservative leadership in a national politburo, the preeminence of Party organizations over all government institutions, its subservient legal system, and its massive and growing security apparatus are all familiar to those who recall communist systems of 30 years ago. The recent crackdown is a symptom of the survival, indeed the revitalization, of a Soviet model of governance. The continuing strength of that model is not altered by revolutionary changes in the economy or by the staffing of government institutions by younger, better educated, and more worldly administrators. China’s economy and society may remind us of South Korea’s and Taiwan’s in an earlier era, but the core political institutions, and in recent years the political attitudes of the leaders, are more reminiscent of the Soviet Union during the late Brezhnev era. This makes China a deeply paradoxical polity, presenting its leaders with a real dilemma.
China today is indeed unlike China 25 years ago, and it is far more open and dynamic than the Soviet Union ever was. But political change, when it does occur, may not turn China into Taiwan or South Korea writ large. Our discussions of Chinese political change often appear to adopt an unconscious default position: China’s leaders are holding back a tide of change that leads to liberal multiparty rule, better governance, the elimination of corruption, political stability, the rule of law, and greater economic prosperity. But other political futures are just as likely.
The fate of the former Soviet Union and similar regimes is more relevant to China’s political dilemma and is surely paramount in the minds of China’s leaders. Out of some 30 independent states that emerged from the collapse of communism in Eurasia, no more than a third are now prosperous and well-governed multiparty democracies. Almost all of these success stories are small, ethnically uniform states on the periphery of the European Union—a “democratic crescent” that stretches from Estonia to Slovenia. Many of the other post-Soviet countries experienced dismemberment, civil war, and long periods of instability. Russia and Ukraine have undergone severe and prolonged recessions; their political systems are illiberal and deeply corrupt, though surely more “pluralistic” than before.
China’s leaders understand and are haunted by this history. Even if they secretly believe that a multiparty political system is desirable, they know the perils of a botched attempt at political change. Stability is the overwhelming priority of China’s leaders. It is seen, justifiably, as the foundation for China’s economic rise and growing geopolitical importance. The trajectory of Russia—the comparison that really matters to China’s elite—has been in the opposite direction.
So the prescription is: don’t rock the boat. Soviet-style political structures have well-known problems, but they have held China together for the past 30 years of wrenching social and economic change. Experimenting with democracy within the Communist Party, limited electoral mechanisms at the provincial and national level, a freer press, designing effective anti-corruption measures that tie the Party’s hands, and a broader openness in intellectual and political life are unnecessary gambles that risk everything China has accomplished. The elite don’t want to repeat Gorbachev’s naïve mistakes.
The fate of the former Soviet Union is paramount in the minds of China’s leaders.
What are China’s leaders so afraid of? Long before the attempted Jasmine Revolution, they knew how quickly and unexpectedly political challenges can arise. They were just as surprised as everyone else by the collapse of their brethren Soviet-style political systems from 1989 to 1991. And they had their own major crisis in May–June 1989, which escalated out of their control, split their top leadership, and forced a draconian military response.
Continuing social changes, not just history, leave the regime skittish. Waves of local protest—by farmers concerned with taxation and land tenure, urban homeowners expelled with little compensation in corrupt urban redevelopment schemes, tens of millions of state-sector workers laid off in enterprise restructuring and privatization since the mid-1990s, unprotected workers in export industries and the transport sector opposing unfair pay and poor working conditions—do not amount to a unified political movement to challenge Party rule. But China’s leaders believe that they make any kind of political opening a hazardous venture.
What China’s leaders fear is large and prolonged protests in key cities. Precisely because of the changes sketched so clearly by Steinfeld, these would be much harder to control than the protests 22 years ago, and would force the leadership once again to confront a choice between compromise (and perhaps spiraling demands for liberalization and political change) and brute force. This is the choice that has loomed suddenly for dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. The same choice openly split China’s Politburo Standing Committee in 1989, which led to even larger protests and surprisingly strong popular resistance to the initial attempt to impose martial law.
What to do? For the time being, postpone any tinkering with core political institutions, and double down on surveillance and repression. China’s leaders have been far more creative at finding ways to monitor the Internet, curb the mass media, and halt incipient protest than at creating credible institutions to deter corruption and abuse of power by their own officials at the local levels. The strategy is conservative and corporate, designed to preserve the rise of a new Chinese state capitalism on a global scale by deploying refurbished Soviet-style institutions as enforcers. This strategy avoids the risks of liberalization and reform and postpones the structural changes necessary to create a genuinely Chinese political system that overcomes the flaws of the Soviet import.
This is, in short, a holding strategy, one that betrays a lack of confidence and political imagination. One might ask, if not now, with China’s economy riding high and public support for the regime strong, when? Incremental political reform will be much harder when the economic juggernaut begins to falter, the population begins to age, and the educated urban middle classes take prosperity for granted. By that point China’s political system—and perhaps with it the economy—may be in for a hard landing.