Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Chinese Puzzle: Democratic Transition, Authoritarian Resilience, or Chaotic Breakdown?

Berlin is getting richer, and not necessarily less sexy. At least not if you are interested in smart debates on international economics and diplomacy. Think tanks keep popping up like mushrooms in these wet autumn days. The Stiftung Mercator is just now establishing the Mercator Private Institute for China Studies (MERICS), which will be directed by the political scientist and China expert Prof Sebastian Heilmann. Among other activities, Heilmann has been researching Adaptive Authoritarianism, a term which describes the performance of China´s Politbureau over the past 30 years pretty well.

At MERICS, I attended (with GDN´s Pierre Jacquet who happened to be in Berlin) a rich and dense meeting, dubbed the Berlin China Dispute that discussed the political (and hence economic) future of China´s political regime. Thomas Bagger, Minister Cabinet Head of the German Foreign Affairs, did a great job of moderating the dispute (yes, it does show when the moderator has a full grasp on what is to be debated!). The high-calibre Mercator event brought together three renowned international experts on China's political development who represented diverse and conflicting positions in the controversy about China's future political trajectory: Andrew J. Nathan, Professor of Political Science, Columbia University, and American Academy, Berlin; Minxin Pei, Director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies, Claremont McKenna College; and Sebastian Heilmann.
During the past three decades, China's political system has managed to outlast most other variants of Communist Party rule and has overseen the fastest economic expansion in world history - a transformation that has brought with it not only greater wealth and global clout, but also growing income and regional inequality, severe ecological degradation, frequent popular protest and recently intensifying political-ideological contestation. What kind of political transformation will China's massive economic, social and technological transformation bring about in the near future?

Sebastian Heilmann started the opening salvo: It is not China that has collapsed – rather the China doom scenarios have collapsed (sic!). Unlike other authoritarian regimes, China has succeeded in pushing back interest groups, according to him. China has taken the Marxist approach: economic reform first, political reform follows. Just like Bert Brecht wrote in 1928 to Kurt Weill´s music in the Dreigroschenoper : "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral." - Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?  (Food is the first thing, morals follow on. – What keeps manhood alive?). As China engineers its economy increasingly toward consumption, her external clout and leverage is bound to rise on the global scale – not least through higher merchandise and service imports.

Andrew Nathan tried to occupy the middle ground. He viewed China as a case of resilient authoritarianism and pointed in the list of explanations (which curiously missed out on the more than half billion people that have been released from extreme poverty over the last 30 years) to an effective repression apparatus. Nathan emphasized that the event of any breakdown of one-party rule in China had a nonlinear probability and would be potentially chaotic and disastrous. Nathan, however, also pointed to some interesting, underemphasized side effects of the sprawling media, in particular the social media, that are commonly merely (mis)perceived as a threat to the one-party rule. A proactive government, he argued, can also well use them for piecemeal reform as it is rapidly informed about public anger. By accommodating complaints popular in the social media, they can in principle be used by the rulers for authoritarian resilience - rather than lead to the erosion of political power.

Exiled Chinese academics based in the US often are among the sharpest regime critics; Yasheng Huang comes to mind[1] . So is the highly articulate Minxin Pei. According to him, the breakdown of the one-party regime is a high-probability event in the next ten year resulting of the following trends:

·         the narrowing of the social base underpinning the party (ever more ruled by ´bureaucrats´);

·         quantitative indicators of regime breakdown probability, especially China´s current and future per capita income level;  so China now belongs to a country group where ´democracy´ is the norm as only 29 ´non-democracies´ (half of them oil-rich) remain that are richer than China according to Freedom House classification;

·         average survival length of one-party rule is 70 years (with the Kuomintang's defeat, Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China under CPC (Communist Party of China) rule on October 1, 1949);

·         and the population´s growing exclusion (in relative terms) from higher education.

What could trigger a regime breakdown? Prime candidate is financial liberalization which is feared to result in cascading, uncontrollable balance-sheet disruptions. It remains to be seen whether special zones such as Shanghai can experiment gradual reform in finance as it is hard to see how they can remain isolated from the rest of mainland China.

Pierre Jacquet[2] asked the panelists whether they believed in a teleological orientation of history, referring to the book Violence and Social Orders by North, Wallis and Weingast (Cambridge U Press, 2009).  The authors had defined development as the transition from a closed access social order in which the economy is closed and a small elite captures and redistributes rents to an open access social order; the latter being characterized by openness and competition in the economic realm and contestability through elections in the political realm in which the direction unambiguously goes toward competition both on the economic and political realms because both have to go together. Such Fukuyama-style end-of-history view is very relevant to the discussion of any Chinese "puzzle", and, with the exception of Heilmann, the others confirmed that they believed in this teleological vision. The difference between them was more a question about how the transition takes place: crisis for Pei, control and slow and delayed adjustment for Nathan; by contrast, learned agnosticism for Heilmann as we just don't know the direction that China will take while new models may emerge on the way.

Once again, there is no end of history. And I left the Berlin China Dispute with the suspicion nagging even deeper that political sciences, not economics, may be the queen of social sciences…

[1] See his recent Ted blog entry Why democracy still wins: A critique of Eric X. Li’s “A tale of two political systems”. I guess that anti-China views ´pay´ better in the US both than elsewhere and than do pro-China views.
[2] Special thanks to Pierre for having clarified that part oft he debate to me.