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China Banks on Authoritarian Capitalism

John Lee

Many believe that the current political turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen is a warning to Beijing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could be the next authoritarian regime existing on borrowed time.

For the country to avoid similar political turmoil, many lecture Beijing that the country needs genuine political reform and the Chinese people need more freedom. But that is not the way most leaders in Beijing see it. The current turmoil is only reaffirming to Chinese leaders that they need to tighten rather than loosen their grip on political and economic power.

There is no doubt that Beijing is keeping a wary eye on events in the Middle East even as it maintains an awkward silence. By the government’s own figures, there were an estimated 125,000 instances of mass unrest against officialdom in 2009. Few of these protesters demand democracy and were instead venting their frustrations over land seizures, corruption, exorbitant local taxes and levies etc.

But the censorship of any internet search terms such as ‘Egypt’, ‘Tunisia’ and ‘Middle East unrest’ attest to the genuine fear that spontaneous, large-scale and long-lasting protests that can potentially bring down the government.

While events in the Middle East might alarm some CCP leaders, it would not have surprised them. Authoritarian governments are often ruthless but it is only because they are acutely aware of the discontentment and frustrations of their own people — precisely why these governments rely on the state’s coercive apparatus to suppress dissent and dismantle opposition.

Lessons

It comes down to the CCP’s understanding of history. The CCP has devoted enormous time, resources and manpower to understanding the reasons why Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fell.

The current generation of CCP leaders learnt important lessons about the Party’s vulnerability during the Tiananmen protests in 1989. But the Soviet and Eastern European revolutions taught the Party two important lessons.

It hit Beijing that these communist regimes were seen as incompetent, uncouth and irresponsive. The governments were disrespected, mocked and seen as farcical. Worst of all, these authoritarian regimes had become irrelevant to the country’s economic, social, intellectual and community elite.

If authoritarian governments wanted to remain in power, the events from 1989-1991 convinced Beijing that they needed to fundamentally renegotiate the bargain between the government and its economic and social elite.

To do so, the decision was taken to make the CCP the centre of Chinese economic, social and community life — and irrevocably tie the future of China’s elite to the exclusive rule of the Party.

This was the rise of modern China’s ‘authoritarian capitalism’. The fact that China’s state-controlled sector lies at the heart of its modern political-economy was a lesson learnt from revolutions in Moscow, Prague, Budapest and Berlin, in addition to the countrywide protests throughout China in 1989.

Second, while western commentators were celebrating the triumph of the individual human spirit and democracy, the CCP came to the more sobering conclusion that authoritarian regimes are at their most vulnerable when they are at their most lenient.

After all, a diverse and independent civil society can only thrive when citizens who no longer fear their government. This explains Beijing’s fear of and intolerance for non-state sanctioned groups such as unions, Christians and the Falun Gong members exploding in size and number throughout Chinese society.

It is also why private blogging sites which have the potential to spontaneously give life to virtual communities of discontentment are treated with suspicion. Finally, it explains why China has become more severe on its ‘dissidents’ since 1989 despite the country’s economic development.

The CCP would also consider the statement by the Egyptian army vowing not to use force against the demonstrators and calling their protests legitimate. Indeed, as far as Beijing is concerned, the Mubarak regime has long lost its self-belief and with it the ability to exercise tight control over its own army.

History is a great teacher to all governments. But these current lessons are telling Beijing to embrace more tightly a purer authoritarian faith rather than abandon it.

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