August 30, 2002


China's Governance Crisis (Minxin Pei, September 2002, Foreign Affairs)
In retrospect, the 1990s ought to be viewed as a decade of missed opportunities. The CCP leadership could have taken advantage of a booming economy to renew itself through a program of gradual political reform built on the rudimentary steps of the 1980s. But it did not, and now the cumulative costs of a decade of foot-dragging are becoming more visible. In many crucial respects, China's hybrid neo-authoritarian order eerily exhibits the pathologies of both the political stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union and the crony capitalism of Suharto's Indonesia.

These pathologies -- such as pervasive corruption, a collusive local officialdom, elite cynicism, and mass disenchantment -- are the classic symptoms of degenerating governing capacity. In most political systems, a regime's capacity to govern is measured by how it performs three key tasks: mobilizing political support, providing public goods, and managing internal tensions. These three functions of governance -- legitimation, performance, and conflict resolution -- are, in reality, intertwined. A regime capable of providing adequate public goods (education, public health, law and order) is more likely to gain popular support and keep internal tensions low. In a Leninist party-state however, effective governance critically
hinges on the health of the ruling party. Strong organizational discipline, accountability, and a set of core values with broad appeal are essential to governing effectively. Deterioration of the ruling party's strength, on the other hand, sets in motion a downward cycle that can severely impair the party-state's capacity to govern.

Numerous signs within China indicate that precisely such a process is producing huge governance deficits. The resulting strains are making the political and economic choices of China's rulers increasingly untenable. They may soon be forced to undertake risky reforms to stop the rot. If they do not, dot communism could be no more durable than the dot coms. [...]

Many in the Bush administration view China's rise as both inevitable and threatening, and such thinking has motivated policy changes designed to counter this potential "strategic competitor." On the other hand, the international business community, in its enthusiasm for the Chinese market, has greatly discounted the risks embedded in the country's political system. Few appear to have seriously considered whether their basic premises about China's rise could be wrong. These assumptions should be revisited through a more realistic assessment of whether China, without restructuring its political system, can ever gain the institutional competence required to generate power and prosperity on a sustainable basis. As Beijing changes its leadership, the world needs to reexamine its long-cherished views about China, for they may be rooted in little more than wishful thinking.

As is so often the case among foreign policy professionals, this article seems to be worried about the last crisis rather than the next. We all know how this one ends: communism can never, even when it attempts to weld itself to capitalism, provide the kind of decent life that citizens ultimately demand. The question is not: can this current political regime endure? Of course it can't. The question is: can this China endure a regime change? Absent a totalitarian, or at least authoritarian, central government, willing to use ruthless force to keep the State together, how can a nation of over a billion people of varied backgrounds, spread out over a massive geography, be made to cohere and be made to function efficiently? One seriously doubts that it can.
Posted by Orrin Judd at August 30, 2002 11:07 AM
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