China’s options: ‘de-totalitarianization’ or Soviet-style collapse

Is China’s ruling Communist party about to enter a decade of systemic crisis that will undermine the durability of one-party rule?

Single-party regimes have the option of pursuing the Soviet route to self-destruction or the Taiwan-Mexican option of “self-renewal and transformation,” says a leading analyst.

But the current inner-party factional struggles and troubled leadership transition are highlighting the party’s dubious legitimacy, and raising questions about its capacity for political reform and internal regeneration.

“The Chinese Communist party would like the world to believe that the forthcoming trial of Bo Xilai will be a triumph of authoritarian self-policing and evidence of its ability to root out a few bad apples,” says a prominent observer.

“In fact, the downfall of one of the country’s most senior politicians and the lurid details of murder, sex, money and power that accompanied it have had almost entirely the opposite effect,” writes the FT’s Jamil Anderlini, undermining the party’s “carefully cultivated perception that, while there may be corruption and wrongdoing at lower levels, the system is governed by clean and selfless elites who live only to serve the masses.”

But recent revelations of endemic corruption have proved that “the rot goes right to the top” and dispelled the illusion – evident in local protests against corrupt local officials such as last year’s revolt in the village of Wukan – that the country’s leaders are committed to the people’s welfare:

In the many small uprisings that continually bubble up across China, the protagonists almost always believe that if the country’s enlightened leaders only knew about local corruption they would descend like a deus ex machina to administer justice.

One senior retired western diplomat who specialized in China for nearly 30 years recently confided to the FT that the Bo Xilai case had prompted an epiphany when he finally realized the top mandarins were just as tainted as officials at the lower levels.

Yet other observers contend that the current crisis may even strengthen the ruling Communist party:  

In the West, it may seem self-evident that the party, even under weak leadership, has parted ways with a bad apple of his stature. But many in China are impressed by the party’s actions. What at first glance would seem to be a catastrophe for the party could ultimately solidify its control. “I would not have expected his case to be handed over to the courts,” says regime critic Li Datong.

“Putting a Politburo member of his caliber on trial is a sign of authority,” says Hu Xingdou, a Chinese economist and reformer.

The recent political machinations are “all well and good for the organization of the Party,” says Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

“But it leaves one huge question unanswered: How will the transition affect China’s domestic and foreign policies?”

The honest answer is that nobody knows. The Party’s leadership transition today is less about policy than about the protection of entrenched interests. The various factions at the top can trust only those who will ensure the security of their respective factions and families. The policy preferences of the incoming leaders may matter, but since they choose to say nothing, we have no choice but to wait and find out.

China’s ruling Communist elite is “weak,” dissident artist Ai Weiwei tells Der Spiegel, but he expects that the next generation will embark on necessary reforms. The emerging new leaders “know that they have to make great changes.”

SPIEGEL: You’re expected in Washington for the opening of a major show of your work, and in Berlin to begin the professorship that the Academy of the Arts has offered you. But there is no mention whatsoever in the Chinese state media about you, your case and the fact that you’ve been barred from leaving the country.

Ai: Strange, isn’t it? Not a word about me in the gossip columns, and not a word on the political pages, and yet in a single night there were more than 500 articles about me in the rest of the world.

SPIEGEL: But with your lawsuit, aren’t you practically challenging the authorities to lock you up?

Ai: I don’t want to be trapped by that logic. Of course they’ll win against me in the short term, but not in the end, because they are weak. In fact, they’re so shy that they don’t even dare to discuss my case in public. I’ve seen shy girls, and shy little boys, too — but have you ever seen such a shy government?

Ai also expresses hope for the new generation of leaders set to take power early next year:

SPIEGEL: A new group of men will assume China’s leadership in a few weeks, the fifth generation since Mao, the generation of the princelings. It’s also your generation. Xi Jinping, the designated party leader, is only four years older than you.

Ai: And I became aware of that recently. I came across a photo showing my father, the poet Ai Qing, next to the father of Xi Jinping, the politician Xi Zhongxun. For quite some time, both followed similar life paths, both were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps we, their sons, could share a few experiences with each other. I believe that the new leaders know that they have to make great changes in this country. It’s impossible for things to remain the way they are.

Hat tip: China Digital Times.

The Washington retrospective exhibition includes an installation comprised of 3,200 porcelain crabs called “He Xie” (above), a play on the words for river crab which also sound like the word “harmonious.” The ruling Communist party’s purportedly aspires to create “a harmonious society,” but the slogan has become social media slang for online censorship.

Ai’s biography illustrates why his art blends the aesthetic and the political, says Mami Kataoka of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, who organized the exhibit:

Ai’s father, Ai Qing, was a famous Chinese poet. Shortly after the Cultural Revolution and Ai’s birth, however, the family was exiled during China’s Anti-Rightist Movement. Ai saw his father humiliated, reduced to cleaning public toilets, Kataoka said.

“He was born out of those kind of social conditions,” she said. “I think it’s only natural for him to question about human rights.”

The party has come a long way from the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, as its current purge of its most prominent neo-Maoist would suggest. But the official media’s portrayal of the Bo Xilai scandal as evidence of the party’s “commitment to rule of law” and “superb ability to deal with complicated situations” is a gross distortion of the facts, says the FT’s Anderlini:

When historians look back on the Bo Xilai scandal they will almost certainly identify this as the moment when China’s vicious backroom political battles spilled into the open and the myth of the good emperor was shattered.

Far from revealing authoritarian China’s meritocracy and ability to self-correct, the Bo Xilai saga underscores how its leaders believe they are above the law and how little accountability there actually is.

There are essentially two strategic options for single-party regimes: the Soviet route to self-destruction or the Taiwan-Mexican option of “self-renewal and transformation,” writes Pei, a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States:

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, top CCP leaders have resolved not to repeat the Soviet tragedy. Their policy has been, therefore, resisting all forms of political reform. The result is, unfortunately, an increasingly sclerotic party, captured by special interests, and corrupt and decadent opportunists like Bo. It may have over 80 million members, but most of them join the party to exploit the pecuniary benefits it provides. They themselves have become a special interest group disconnected with Chinese society.

But the official party line has failed to appreciate the real lessons of the Soviet Communist Party’s demise:

The sad truth is: the Soviet regime was too sick to be revived by the mid-1980s because it had resisted reforms for two decades during the rule of Brezhnev. More importantly, the CCP should know that, like the millions of the members of the CPSU, its rank and file are almost certain to defect in times of a regime crisis. When the CPSU fell, there was not a single instance of loyal party members coming to the defense of the regime. Such a fate awaits the CCP.

It is highly debatable whether the CCP is in a position to pursue the Taiwan-Mexican strategy of self-renewal as many question “how long the party can hold on to its power and whether the party can manage a democratic transition to save itself,” says Pei:

By many measures, the party’s rule is about to enter a decade of systemic crisis. Having governed China for 63 years, the party is approaching, within a decade, the recorded longevity of the world’s most durable one-party regimes — the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union (74 years), the Kuomintang (73), and the Revolutionary Institutional Party of Mexico (71). ….

In addition, China’s rapid economic development has thrust the country past what is commonly known as the “democratic transition zone” — a range of per capita income between $1000 and $6000 (in purchasing power parity, PPP). … Chances of maintaining autocracy decrease further once a country’s per capita income exceeds $6000 (PPP). China’s has already reached $8500 (PPP). … China is in an socioeconomic environment in which autocratic governance becomes increasingly illegitimate and untenable. Anyone who is unconvinced of this point should take a look at Chinese Weibo (or microblogs) to get a sense of what ordinary Chinese think of their government.

The challenge facing the new generation of leaders is “truly daunting,” Pei concludes:

“Their first order of business is actually not to plunge into a Gorbachev-style political perestroika, but the de-totalitarianization of the Chinese state and the transformation of the CCP into another KMT or PRI,” he writes. “Without taking this intermediate step immediately, the CCP may find that a Soviet-style collapse is its only future.”


China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Print Friendly
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest

No one-size-fits-all approach to aiding transitions

Supporting democratic transitions requires customized, country-specific approaches which empower local political and civil society actors, says a new review of European Union democratization strategies. The review stresses partnership and incentive-based approaches, the importance of the socio-economic dimension to maintain sustainable transition, and calls on the European Commission to establish a platform or network on democratic transformation issues.

Transition poses challenges which vary widely from one country to another. The process can be peaceful or crisis-driven; it involves uncertainty, risk and sometimes even threats to domestic or regional stability.

Experience shows that transitions can fail. Such failure can cause high political, social and economic costs to societies. A successful transition process means consolidating reforms and making them sustainable in the long-term, in an atmosphere of stability and confidence. In some cases, there will also be a need to prevent conflict while promoting and managing peaceful change.

The EU has considerable experience of supporting democratic transitions, both internally, in its neighborhood and around the world. The EU’s enlargement policy, in particular, has proven to be a powerful tool to foster societal transformation. Countries that have already acceded to the EU, in particular those who joined in 2004 and in 2007, and those on the road to join have undergone impressive changes through accession-driven democratic and economic reforms.

The close inter-linkage of peace, stability, democracy, and prosperity has come to the forefront also in other frameworks, including the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), development cooperation and EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

Mechanisms should be introduced to ensure that the voices of civil society and stakeholders are effectively heard in reform processes. For example, in the aftermath of uprisings resulting from widespread social dissatisfaction in the Arab Spring countries, a Civil Society Facility was created to help strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations both in the Eastern and Southern Neighborhood to promote the needed reforms and increase public accountability in their countries.

In order to further enhance knowledge-sharing and development capacities, the Commission should set up a broader platform or network on democratic transformation issues. Twinning between public institutions of donors and partner countries could be another tool of improving access to knowledge. Full benefit should also be drawn from the European Transition Compendium which compiles the transition experience of EU Member States.

Country-specific reform

As a result of economic and political uncertainties, transition often brings about a short-term deterioration in growth and employment, as well as in public and external accounts. Where this results in increasing unemployment and poverty in particular, it may erode and put at risk the legitimacy of the democratization process and result in increased emigration and brain drain. In the longer term, reforms need to be able to meet citizens’ expectations for decent jobs, economic opportunities and social justice.

Even if, in general, the long-term objectives of the new leaders of these countries were similar, the priorities, sequencing and pace of the reforms differed widely. Some countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia) quickly introduced radical reforms to create conditions for an economic recovery (the so-called “shock therapy”), despite its significant negative impacts in the short term, such as output drop, unemployment and recession.

Other countries (such as Hungary and Slovenia) took a more “gradualist” approach by implementing step-by-step macro-economic, structural and institutional reforms, avoiding thus abrupt changes in economic output, employment and welfare. This allowed time for national enterprises and economic operators to adapt to the new conditions of an open market economy.

Responding to partner societies’ needs

To secure a peaceful and successful transition, the specific reform process of each country should respond to people’s needs, defined by the country itself. While key needs and challenges in transition countries vary considerably, they very often include:  national reconciliation and building a national consensus on fundamental issues; establishing well-functioning democratic institutions and processes; avoiding an unsustainable decline in incomes and employment and restoring or maintaining macroeconomic stability; promoting long-term socio-economic development and inclusion, with decent jobs, economic opportunities, basic social services, including quality healthcare, education, and social justice; establishing a business-friendly environment, (re)defining property rights and the role of the private sector, and reviewing the functioning of the market; and where necessary, restoring security, justice and the rule of law.

As situations vary widely, there is no uniform prescription for a successful transition process or EU response.

In the area of democratic governance, typical examples of areas where such quick wins could be possible include freedom of expression and credible elections (see the example of Tunisia, a representative and legitimate constituent assembly and the adoption of a new constitution through participatory processes.

In the short run, democratic transition may weaken economic activity, employment rates and macroeconomic stability. It is crucial that measures are taken and projects implemented that can help usher in fast improvements in income generation, social safety nets and basic service delivery, and can guard against unsustainable poverty increases.

Applying incentives, constraints and conditionalities 

While incentives, constraints and conditionalities cannot be the main driver of reforms, they can support the process.

Incentive-based approaches under the EU enlargement policy have produced positive results, for instance in the Western Balkans. Progress on the EU accession path is linked to concrete steps in the reform agenda.

The ENP also follows a so-called “more for more” principle. Countries which go further and faster with specific, measurable democratic reforms, will receive greater support from the EU. To reflect this new incentive-based approach, two umbrella programmers were set up to offer additional “more-for-more” resources: Support for Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth (SPRING) for the southern neighborhood (see the example of Tunisia) and Eastern Partnership Integration and Cooperation Program (EaPIC) for the Eastern Neighborhood.

Experience from the EU enlargement policy shows that it is important to create an enabling environment (legal framework and rules on funding, inclusion in political consultation procedures) that allows civil society in the country to develop in a sustainable manner.

In supporting transition processes the EU should explore triangular cooperation and other options for cooperating with developing countries that are also emerging as providers of development cooperation and have recent experience with democratic transition.

The EU already has a range of useful policies and tools available to support transition countries worldwide as they embark on the path to democracy, which it has successfully developed and deployed, especially but not  only in its immediate neighbours. The EU can play a key role, in particular, by helping to create an enabling environment for some of the crucial elements of successful democratic and economic transformations, such as for various democratic actors, enterprise, investments, trade and social protection.

While experience shows that transition processes should, first and foremost, be owned by the state and its citizens, experience also shows that the EU does have valuable expertise to offer, adapted of course to the needs and wishes of partner countries anywhere in the world, as part of a wider EU package of political, economic or other support.


Print Friendly
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest

Can Georgia’s transition set a regional precedent?

Is Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power “a good deal for pretty much everyone,” raising the possibility that the country “could once again punch way above its weight in global affairs”? Will the transition set a precedentin a region riven by conflict and authoritarianism”?

The electoral victory of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition over Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement in this week’s parliamentary poll is a triumph for the Georgia people, the United States and even for Russia (at least for its people), according to George Mason University’s Nino Japaridze  and Job C. Henning of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

Despite concerns that post-election tensions may yet threaten the transition, the election has demonstrated the Georgian people’s political maturity and the robustness of the country’s democratic process.

“This reassertion of democratic political will is also a victory for the United States [which] ….needs a stable independent democratic model to hold up, as it seeks to avoid the impression within Arab societies that its policies are designed to create new client states,” they contend:

A peaceful transition in Georgia enhances regional stability and sets a valuable precedent. Neighboring autocracies have a lot to learn from Georgia. Democracy is indeed on the march — not through external intervention or revolution but through the patient development of political culture, a product of quiet but deliberate policies of building institutions and of monitoring human rights and elections.

Georgian Dream’s win is “even a victory for the Russian people, if not for President Vladimir Putin,” Japaridze and Henning suggest.

“Without the useful foil of an impetuous Saakashvili as the sole face of Georgia, Putin will have a harder time making Georgia look like a font of post-colonial insolence and a menacing outpost of U.S. interference, and Russian domestic interest in normalization of relations is likely to grow.”

Analysts suggest that the poll, which saw the election of Levan Berdzenishvili (right), a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, as a deputy for Georgian Dream, could set a valuable regional precedent.

“Since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty-one years ago, the fifteen former Soviet Republics have followed mostly bumpy paths toward and away from democracy,” says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Anya Schmemann.

Georgians “stunned the world” by electing the opposition coalition and, despite serious challenges, “a peaceful and orderly transition would be an important success story in a region riven by conflict and authoritarianism,” she argues:

In the Caucasus, Georgia’s neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan are embroiled in their own frozen conflict and are ruled by hardline leaders …In nearby Central Asia, the nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are among the most autocratic in the world….To the north of Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine have rolled back democracy…. Only the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have overcome the former Soviet curse and have successfully democratized as members of the EU and NATO.

“Given Georgia’s fractious history, its contested election and transfer of power are remarkable and hopeful,” says Schmemann, who was in Georgia during the 2008 war with Russia. “Close Western scrutiny of the election surely mattered, and the United States and others will now need to help both sides navigate the transition to ensure its success.”

Fears that Saakashvili’s defeat represents a victory for Russia are overstated, writes Marta Foresti, head of the Politics and Governance program at the UK’s Overseas Development Institute.

“Focusing too much on the role of Russia would underestimate how much this is actually a Georgian story,” she insists, as many comments posted on articles and blogs make clear.

Saakashvili’s authoritarian style helped create “a toxic political climate” that was only made worse by the 2008 war over the control of the Abkhazia and Ossetia regions.

“But opposition parties in Georgia were weak and governed more by the personality of their leaders than by any ideology or coherent policy plans,” she writes:

If [the election] paves the way to more open, balanced and sober political processes and dialogue, it will be to the credit of Georgians’ themselves, not the Kremlin or Capitol Hill. It would also mark a major step forward in Georgia’s democratic transition, and one that other countries in the region and beyond may wish to study. 

The poll was monitored by hundreds of international observers, including delegations from the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, two of the National Endowment for Democracy’s core institutes.

Print Friendly
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest

After Arab awakening, Iran faces domestic turmoil, ‘unprecedented’ isolation

Iran’s Islamic Republic is losing out from the Arab awakening, writes Marlène Laruelle. The regime is not only facing domestic unrest due to the economic impact of sanctions, but is also likely to find itself isolated to an extent unprecedented in its recent history.

The 2011-12 popular uprisings in the Arab world have contributed to undermining Iran’s position in the Middle East. Moderate spillovers of popular frustration toward authoritarian regimes took place in Iran against the political system. These actions refreshed, but failed to fully revive, the revolutionary ‘Green Movement’ that followed the disputed victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against liberal opposition candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in 2009.

In 2011, Tehran’s initial welcoming of an ‘Islamic awakening’ in the Arab world as a means to strengthen a pan-Islamic, anti-American axis in the region quickly faded. Emerging Arab Islamist governments sought to strengthen the Sunni axis rather than the pan-Islamic one. The resumption of formal ties between Iran and Egypt after three decades of rupture was very significant in symbolic terms, but it is not likely to do much to prevent the overall drop in support for Iran in the region.

On his first visit to Tehran, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi unequivocally stated Egypt’s support for the Syrian revolutionaries, not the Assad regime. Although Riyadh initially interpreted the uprisings as a threat to its own rule, victories at the polls for Arab Islamists may in the end turn out to be a win for conservative Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia. The political stakes of regime changes in the Middle East thus overlap in part with Sunni-Shia competition patterns, especially in the Gulf region.

Iran’s perception of being threatened by Sunni advances has been strengthened by the demonstrations that rocked Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is essentially governed by a Sunni minority, as well as by the ambiguous position of the United Arab Emirates, which has a large Iranian expatriate population and extensive economic ties with Iran.

With the Assad regime set to fall in Syria, Iran looks likely to lose its most faithful ally in the region. In the meantime, a pattern of balkanization is emerging in Syria, as the different actors rapidly fragment into multiple groups. The country now faces a potential split of its territory between Sunnis opposed to the regime and Alawites loyal to Bashar al-Assad. This presents a danger of tangible sectarian divisions as well as their potential instrumentalisation to advance political agendas.

The loss of the Assad regime, politically and militarily backed by Tehran, would contribute to further isolating Iran in the region. Even if Assad can hold onto power for years to come, Syria will no longer be the strong state that it had been for decades. For Tehran, the Syrian uncertainty requires a rethinking of its strategy toward Israel and could drastically impact its support to both Hezbollah and Hamas.


Iranian decision-making circles are faced with multiple challenges, both domestically and on the international front. The stakes are complicated by the overlap between international issues – the nuclear program and relations with the United States – and regional ones – the Syrian crisis and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The country is at a crossroads. It could see its position significantly diminished in the coming months and years, but it could also benefit from new spaces for projecting its power both in the Middle East and in wider Central Asia. In Syria, Tehran wants to have a say in any solution that emerges. It is trying to initiate some low profile contacts with parts of the Syrian opposition, and could probably be prevailed upon to agree to Bashar’s departure, provided the Baath security organs remain in power. However, Iran’s economy is also suffering from the new sanctions, and Israel has threatened to launch an attack, with or without U.S. support. Iran’s regional status is therefore under threat, as is the regime itself, which could face renewed domestic unrest.

Tehran could suddenly find itself isolated to an extent that is unprecedented in its recent history. And it is running out of options.

Marlène Laruelle is associate researcher at FRIDE, a Madrid-based think tank, and a research professor at George Washington University.

This is an extract from a longer report published by FRIDE.


Print Friendly
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest