This view has some basis in fact. The post-Tiananmen years are the golden age for the CCP. Yet believers in “authoritarian resilience” have overlooked one crucial fact: the decay of the party as a ruling institution. Today it is impossible to ignore the evidence that the rot of corruption has spread throughout the party (and therefore the state).
The source of regime decay originates, ironically, in the very success with which the CCP has achieved its two central objectives: economic growth and repression of pro-democracy forces.
Twenty-five years of high economic growth have produced enormous wealth that invites looting by the ruling elites. At the same time, the party’s suppression of the opposition and civil society has created an ideal environment in which the ruling elites can loot without restraint.
Endemic corruption is the most visible sign of the decay of the regime. We have heard shocking tales of thievery and lawlessness involving senior CCP officials such as Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party boss. One can make a case that a kleptocracy has taken root in China.
Organisationally, members of this kleptocracy have privatised the power of the party-state, forming patronage networks based on personal loyalty and exchange of favours. Again, according to accounts in the media, such networks now permeate the Chinese political system and the country’s economy. In the economic realm, powerful politicians, their family members and business cronies – known as “families” – dominate lucrative sectors such as property, energy, telecommunications and natural resources.
State-owned enterprises have degenerated into conduits through which assets nominally owned by the Chinese people can be cheaply, if not freely, acquired by such families.
This post-1989 kleptocracy has harmed the Chinese people. But the CCP has suffered from its depredations as well. Privatisation of state power and usurpation of the party’s authority by patronage networks have gravely undermined its organisational integrity. Its elites have become so thoroughly cynical and self-serving that they are only motivated by private gain, not the party’s corporate interests or long-term wellbeing.
The underlying dynamics invite comparison with the “tragedy of the commons”. Anyone who enters the party and climbs the hierarchy can expect a share of the spoils. Such lucrative perks and opportunities for self-enrichment lure opportunistic elements in Chinese society. The usual approach is to seek out patrons.
Far from being motivated by the party’s now-bankrupt Maoist ideology, such individuals aim to maximise the returns on their political investment in the party, as quickly as possible.
Yet, indebted only to their patrons, these people have no loyalty to the party. Intellectually they may understand that its long-term survival as China’s central political force demands that they observe its rules and implement its policies.
They know the party needs them to confine themselves to petty theft rather than looting. In the real world, however, these pragmatic souls are only too aware that the party may soon be over. Everyone around them is busy stealing. If they think twice before cashing in, they risk looking like fools.
Since Tiananmen, such dynamics – and two generations of opportunists who have colonised the Chinese regime – have made the once-mighty CCP into a hollow leviathan.
Shortly after his appointment as the new party chief in 2012, Xi Jinping lamented that when the Soviet Union collapsed, not a single party member came to the defence of the old regime. It is impossible to know what was on his mind.
All we can guess is that, having seen the rot inside the CCP, Mr Xi must be worried the party might not survive another Tiananmen.
The writer is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College