When Will the Party End?

In 1976, Mao Zedong died, leaving China destitute. Shopping was a dreary chore, more space than stock filled shelves. Choice was almost unheard of because there was no competition, just control and command.

Today, however, China’s supermarkets brim, the choices as dizzying as any in Europe or Japan. A big dash of capitalism then has brought the freedom to choose. And today, as China’s Communist Party seeks to hold onto power while opening its markets, the party seemingly has picked the worst of both capitalism and communism.

Mao sought to solve the problem of inequality by giving everyone the same wealth – very little, in a word – and status while giving some of the few more political or legal rights depending on where they stood in the party and bureaucracy. Little has changed when it comes to political and legal rights. The party is not for sharing power and baulks at putting itself under the law. Jeopardy is being doubled by corruption and obstinate bureaucrats trying to protect their petty kingdoms of power.

Meanwhile status is carving society into more pieces, stacking one on top of the other as the gap between the rich and poor widens and new elites emerge, many connected to the party. While China’s communist chieftains have laid the foundations for many markets, they have done nothing to prepare the market for power. That leaves the country lost in the foggy no man’s land between liberal democracy and communism.

The recipe for trouble can be found in China’s Gini index, a statistical tool which uses some clever math to measure the spread of wealth and inequality. The Gini index stood at 0.465 in 2004, against 0.22 in 1991. People are grumpy and ripe for protest when scores are above 0.4. For now at least, the Chinese regime is a greater threat to its own population, unmoored and angry, than it is to the United States or even its neighbors.

More than 74,000 cases of unrest ranging from protests to outright riots were reported officially in 2005 as China’s leaders search for ways to keep the lid on despite an economy that has grown by nearly 10 percent a year for the last 25 years. These official figures translate to 238 demonstrations a day on average in 2005, up from 158 on an average day in 2003, mostly ending peacefully.

Source: Wikipedia

These demonstrations challenge the legitimacy of local rulers, invariably Party members. They are symptoms of the Party’s declining legitimacy. Where once legitimacy came from a widely supported, if vaguely understood, political ideology, these days it is down to nationalism and claiming credit for the red-hot economy.

That is shoring up the Party’s popularity today because, protestors aside, more people are becoming richer. Regional and even national labour markets are one reason. Jobseekers are leaving the fields and pastures bound for the cities, especially along the coast. Many are moving permanently, something Beijing encourages. By around 2020 more will live in cities than villages making China a principally an urban society for the first time.

Cities however have a knack for causing people to shed conservative ways. China is not immune. While villagers will still frown or even forbid young couples from living together before getting married, that is if they marry, and tut-tut over divorce, both are common in China’s cities. In some it is even becoming acceptable for bar owners to chase the pink [gay] yuan. People are in short more likely to question, more likely to give something else a try.

China’s wealth is rising rapidly, delivering an average income per person of $7,204 last year, up from $2,800 ten years ago. By contrast, Argentina’s per capita income was $4,030 ($8,773 in 2000 dollars) when the military was forced by unrest to quash democracy in 1975. That was the wealthiest democracy to fall prey to a military coup, according to Adam Przeworski and others in a study of democracy and development from 1950 to 1990.

As people grow richer and better educated, they have greater expectations, and usually seek greater choice. And, although some poor countries enjoy strong democracies, such as Mali, generally as countries become wealthier they are more likely to switch to democracy. The party is going to have to squeeze ever harder if it wants to hold its grip.

This suggests that China is getting closer to a point where people, especially the middle class being minted by the millions every year, will question the party’s right to rule. More and more people are likely to wonder why it is that they can express their will in the supermarket but not over who rules the country.

Will the party go quietly? It might if growth keeps humming along for a few more decades, allowing more liberal leaders to bubble up who can prepare the ground for a new model of politics that separates the rulers from the system. It could be democracy, or it could be something new.

The trouble is that even if the party’s leaders now, or in one future day, decide they want to open up politics, cadres and bureaucrats reaping profits from the four inequalities may not stand for it. Today the party can barely contain corruption, let alone stamp it out, which does not bode well for pushing through wholesale political and legal change. An internal party coup is a risk. Or it might turn out like Russia, where the communist party was discarded as irrelevant, ineffective and corrupt.

If China’s economic merry-go-round stops for long the party’s legitimacy will almost certainly shrivel, leaving it to choose, if people’s patience does not run out first, between the redoubt of nationalism or bowing out.

Either way, the party, the people and the world will be in a pickle.