In a world where democracy seems to be the elite, end goal, many observers in numerous countries wonder when it will be China’s turn to democratize. Some scholars hold that there is a high possibility its communist regime will remain standing in the long-run, as the party-state’s capability far outweighs that of any civic opposition movement. Others argue that there did once exist a chance for the regime to evolve as the economy modernized, but modernization has (relatively) long been realized, and the party-state institutions remain entrenched. These theories, however, ignore the many political components that generate citizen legitimacy for China’s unique communist regime and how those components are slowly eroding.
Legitimacy for the overbearing party-state is earned through vehicles such as official ideology, economic prosperity, some sort of, albeit low, standard of official behavior, and unity among top officials that trickles down to the citizenry. An official ideology generates legitimacy because it is, by its very nature, a set of beliefs citizens buy into, either via coercion or voluntarily, that the state promotes and acts on. Economic prosperity is a key to legitimacy in any autocracy, as promised wellbeing by the state produces loyalty to it. A standard of official behavior established for government elites ensures some level of accountability and predictability, generating a correlating level of state legitimacy. Unity among elite officials bolsters state legitimacy as one powerful, coherent front represents the party-state to its citizens.
These components of legitimacy in China are currently atrophying, and China as we know it as a post-totalitarian one-party state may be coming to an end within our lifetimes.
First, the state’s official ideology of Communism is becoming less pure and increasingly muddied with other beliefs. In its purest form, the ideology rests on the goal of a perfectly egalitarian society; ideally, equality should be achieved across all realms to the extent that the state is unnecessary. The reality of China’s Gini Index, however, contradicts this ideology; where 1 represents perfect inequality and 0 represents perfect equality, the country’s index landed at .468 in 2018. This figure is shockingly high for a country whose regime was founded on a promise of 0. Citizens are beginning to question the official ideology, as its ultimate goal is far from being achieved. An economic system to achieve the goal of perfect inequality has fallen out of grasp as well. In 1978, Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping transformed the centrally-planned economy to a market economy. His liberalization policies encouraged private ownership of business and land and opened the economy for trade and foreign direct investment. An increasingly marketized economy inherently leads to inequalities, as the forces of supply and demand allocate resources unequally instead of a central government that distributes them in an equal manner. Thus, an economy of this nature does not contribute to the goals of the nation’s regime, and the ideology becomes murky. Further, the autocracy established by Mao in 1949 was extremely secular and became increasingly secular during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. This meant that Confucianism, which had informed China’s social conventions for the larger part of the state’s history, was wiped out of the culture. The value set, dating from before 480 BCE, stresses filial piety, obedience, and social harmony through a social hierarchy. Under Mao and Communism, all reminders of Confucianism and its adherence were nonexistent, as temples and relics were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Recently, however, due to a President Xi-sponsored cultural renaissance in an effort to increase nationalist sentiments, the ancient principles have slowly seeped back into the Communist ideology. Communism today, with its rampant inequality, market forces, and the return of Confucianism, isn’t Mao or Marx’s classical Communism, and as the ideology decays, loyalty to the regime that promotes it has the ability to erode as well.
Second, performance-based legitimacy is eroding, as illustrated by a recent economic slowdown. Gross domestic product growth has steadily declined since 2007, when it was 14.2%, to 6.6% in 2018. Several factors account for the decline. Exports to the US fell 16% in 2018, causing a massive loss in net trade revenue, while industrial production hit a 17.5 year low this summer. Foreign direct investment into China plummeted in January of 2019 to 124.07 USD HML from 1349.66 USD HML one month prior. While still ranked the second largest in the world, the economy is not delivering the prosperity the state promised it to, causing citizens to question the regime. In short, the autocracy is struggling to buy its citizens’ loyalty.
Third, rampant official corruption is uprooting standards of official behavior traditionally linked to gaining legitimacy. Corruption came to its current astronomical level under the reforms of Xiaoping, where economic power was placed into partisans’ hands for the first time in almost half a century. Officials came to use this power to enrich themselves through laundering, and the families of officials were all of a sudden seen wearing all designer clothes and driving luxury cars. Today, on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index,” where 100 represents “very clean” and 0 represents “highly corrupt,” China scores 41, ranking it the 77th most corrupt nation out of 180 countries. Corruption sweeps almost every sector of the economy and government: casinos, judges, stock traders, Politburo members, and even entire C-suites of partially state-owned enterprises. Beijing officials “under supervision” have increased from 210,000 in 2013 to 997,000 by the end of 2017. Current President Xi, aware that this nationwide grafting is eroding the legitimacy of his regime, has launched an anti-corruption campaign that is arguably the most vicious the state has seen. The administration is targeting almost every level of the party-state and retired officials are fair game as well. In the past five years, Xi has punished more than 1.5 million citizens. There is little surprise that this steep figure has led to citizen disillusionment with the regime.
Lastly, elite unity is collapsing. This follows the above point, as President Xi is targeting and convicting members of his own rank, as well as those below him, in his sweeping campaign. Top party officials, family members, and generals of various levels have fallen victim to Xi’s efforts, and much to their surprise too; in the post-Tiananmen era, there appeared to be an unspoken, unconditional unity as the state grew stronger. Moreover, recently, incentives for officials, including welfare perks, are drying up as the economy dips, slowing eroding motivation to work for the party as well as party loyalty.
While these indicators all point to eventual regime decay, only time will truly reveal the fate of Communist China. In theory, regime decay seems inevitable, as some of these trends will prove extremely difficult to reverse. However, failing autocracies can remain in power for long periods of time, and when they do fall, they tend to fall hard and fast; it will almost appear as if it is not going until it is gone. Meanwhile, all the West can do, like the Chinese citizenry, is wait and watch.