Book Review: The Dictator’s Dilemma

In 1993, there were about 8,700 “mass group incidents” in China over a wide variety of grievances ranging from corruption to forced evictions to human rights abuses to ethnic protests to environmental disaster to unpaid wages as well as nationalist protests against foreign countries engineered by the government. In 2015, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, that number had grown to somewhere over 200,000, although nobody knows for sure, a source of deep discomfort to the government.

So why hasn’t China collapsed? Since the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government has been characterized as riddled with corruption and run by officials who have spirited as much as US$1 trillion to U$3 trillion out of the country in illegal capital flight over the past decade – including relatives of at least five current or former Politburo members who have incorporated Caribbean companies. Nearly 22,000 offshore clients were found in 2014 to have addresses on the mainland or Hong Kong.

But the country hasn’t collapsed and won’t according to an intriguing new book, “The Dictator’s Dilemma,” published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, by Bruce J. Dickson, chairman of the Political Science Department and director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University.

Dickson designed and implemented two nationwide public opinion surveys in urban China, one in 2010 and the other in 2014. As he points out, they were done two years before and two years after the change in leadership that brought Xi Jinping to power and they serve as what he calls “before and after” snapshots of the way the public views the leadership’s performance.

The public, he writes, is fully aware of the repressive, corrupt and dysfunctional aspects of the regime, at the same time tying themselves nonetheless to the administration. They take to Weibo and other social media in the millions to complain about daily frustrations with the government. As the statistics show from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the public is also willing to take to the streets by the thousands to protest.

But the Communist Party, Dickson writes, is able to play a cumbersome game that seeks to balance its priorities – witness Xi’s reform campaign, which so far has put as many as 100,000 officials in the dock on corruption charges, including more than 120 high-ranking officials and five national leaders – although as Financial Times correspondent Jamal Anderlini pointed out in January, bribery still ranks as a standard method of doing business in China and if anything the price has begun to rise again, Xi or no Xi.

Xi’s parallel campaign has put lawyers, social workers, labor activists and environmentalists in jail as well, in what Anderlini points out is a reversion to authoritarianism and a reversal of decades of slow progress towards liberalization.

Nonetheless, the regime, Dickson says, “consults with a wide range of specialists, stakeholders and the general public in a selective but yet extensive manner,” tolerating and even encouraging a growing civil societay even as it restricts interests that seek to liberalize.

As a result, while China’s population may prefer change and opening up, they prefer change within the existing system. Even while it is restrictive, it is regarded as increasingly democratic by the majority of its people even though it isn’t accountable to an electorate. Confucianism plays a major role in “revolutionary” society, just as it has for hundreds of generations.

The party, he writes, generates popular support by creating a sense of patriotic pride for the country’s growing economic and other accomplishments. Even within the system, change is palpable. That is clear to anyone who has been to China over the past several decades. Go to Beijing or Shanghai and you will see cities that are as modern as any in the world, transport systems that are stunning.

The classic dilemma for countries like China is whether rising educational standards, growing incomes, a wealth of material goods that the Communist Party uses to build public support eventually will generate a desire for multiparty democracy.

Unfortunately the answer appears to be no, and it appears to be no in other countries as well. Singapore is now the richest society in Asia, for instances, and few more authoritarian places exist anywhere. Nonetheless, the 2015 election gave the ruling People’s Action Party 83 of the possible 89 seats. Despite its outward trappings of Westminster parliamentarianism. Singapore is hardly any more democratic than China is.

Dickson has written a rather disheartening book, but one that looks at all the drawbacks to the system and ultimately concludes that the Communist Party isn’t going any place soon, and it isn’t just because of the relentless risen gross domestic product that has resulted in moving the biggest number by far of people out of poverty in history. Despite the harsh methods that keep the party in power, it has managed to sustain a nationalist narrative that China, even in the era of Xi and the harsh governing methods he uses to keep his people in power, is the country of the future without pluralist democracy.

“The challenges to forecasting China’s future are the countervailing trends of development and decay, adaptability and atrophy, reform and regression,” Dickson concludes. “As observers, we need to be able to keep more than one idea in our heads at the same time, especially when those ideas are contradictory rather than complementary.”

Last week the annual National People’s Conference concluded a 12-day session mainly to pat itself on the back, whatever shortcomings there are in the country and there are plenty. Its economy may be starting to flag, total debt is 17 percent of gross national product, it faces insurrection in Xinjiang and plenty of people have been jail for reasons that wouldn’t be countenanced in more liberal countries.

But in a series of lightning votes, 98 percent of the delegates rubber-stamped Premier Li Keqiang’s annual state of the nation report. A vast majority of the country’s 1.35 billion people would probably agree. Dickson, in this thoughtful book, seems to have caught the zeitgeist about right. It is a book that belongs on any China scholar’s shelf.