By Francis P. Sempa, Asian Review of Books, Jan 1, 2020
Whither China? It is perhaps the most important question on the minds of statesmen, diplomats, and scholars. French political scientist Jean-Pierre Cabestan, who teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University, attempts to supply the answer in his new book China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?
The title of the book is a bit misleading because from the outset Cabestan contends that China will continue to be a one-party authoritarian state for the foreseeable future. China’s Communist Party has installed what Cabestan calls a “‘new authoritarian equilibrium,’ which should help with maintaining its dictatorship for a long time.” Communist ideology is still utilized by the regime, but Cabestan, like other China watchers, believes the regime’s continuing legitimacy depends much more on economic success and appeals to nationalism.
Cabestan cites the following factors as contributing to the current Chinese regime’s resilience and stability: the omnipresent Party-state bureaucracy; the regime’s control over economic enterprises and elites; the Leninist nature of the Chinese Communist Party which oversees and administers “an efficient system of repression”; the incestuous nature of the economic and political interests of the Chinese nomenklatura; the Party’s control of the military and security services; a growing and satisfied middle class; and the leadership’s cautious approach on the international stage.
The author recognizes potential regime vulnerabilities, including increasing exposure to liberal Western ideas of democracy and political rights; public demonstrations of those rights by citizens of Taiwan and Hong Kong; domestic protests by national minority groups in places like Tibet and Xinjiang; “liberal” elites who favor a move toward a less stringent authoritarianism in the manner of Singapore; and activists and public intellectuals who call for a full-fledged multi-party democracy.
Those potential vulnerabilities, however, will not be sufficient to overcome, at least in the near term, the regime’s unbending commitment to avoid suffering the fate of the Soviet Communist Party. This commitment was demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and is being demonstrated in the streets of Hong Kong today. China’s leadership, according to Cabestan, has made stability its top priority:
[T]o a large extent the party is able to stem overly direct political expressions, relying on major repressive as well as ideological, organizational, economic, and financial means to ensure the collaboration of large sections of society, with its monopoly hold over politics as well as its acts of coercion and control.
The Chinese Communist Party will do what it has to do to stay in power. Cabestan notes President Xi Jinping’s accumulation of dictatorial powers, but senses that some members of the Chinese nomenklatura oppose granting Xi Mao-like authority. If there is such an internal struggle, however, it seems quite clear that Xi is winning. And Xi has unambiguously used economic success and promoted nationalism as tools for maintaining the Party’s hold over society.
Yet, in the book’s concluding chapter, Cabestan describes the Chinese Communist Party as a regime on “extended reprieve.” He believes that in the long term, China is destined to become a democracy. The current Chinese regime will end, he writes,
when taxpayers want to be politically represented, and when elites and society find it unacceptable to jail people for their ideas, have had enough of being ruled by a secret society—the CPC—and conclude that only a democratic China can become a respected great power and full member of the international community.
And Cabestan believes that the Western democracies can promote such democratic tendencies in China by exercising a prudent mix of engagement and confrontation.
Cabestan believes that Francis Fukuyama’s theory of “the end of history” is correct, and that China, presumably like all countries, will eventually evolve towards democracy. China, however, does not have to become a democracy to become a “respected great power” and a “full member of the international community.” It is now both and is still an authoritarian dictatorship. Fukuyama’s theory, which he advanced at the end of the Cold War, looks weaker with each passing year.
About the reviewer
Francis P. Sempa is the author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century” and “America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War”. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.