China’s leaders reveal their fears


Once admired by authoritarian governments elsewhere, not to mention some commentators in the West, for its canny balancing of free markets and party control, China’s style of leadership may be about to lose its shine, The Economist notes:

David Shambaugh of George Washington University, a career-long observer of China, was an early champion of the idea that the party had learned useful lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union and changed its methods of ruling accordingly. It had, for example, allowed the development of NGOs that could help fill in the cracks of an overstretched welfare system. It had recruited more businesspeople into its ranks and experimented on a small scale with elections for party posts.

But in a forthcoming book, Mr Shambaugh says he has changed his mind; he thinks the reforms of which he spoke have run their course and a new era of “hard authoritarianism” has begun. And he points out that there has been no example of an authoritarian country making the transition to high-income status that Mr Xi seeks without at least a partial democratisation.

In November President Xi Jinping met American political scientist Francis Fukuyama [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy], whose claim to fame is a thesis that would seem to run against everything Mr Xi wants to protect: that the march to liberal democracy is an unstoppable one, The Economist adds:

Mr Fukuyama has tweaked this “end of history” line somewhat since first espousing it, emphasising that, even in the absence of democracy, a state’s ability to enforce laws and provide basic services such as education, health and infrastructure can matter a lot…….

There is every reason, therefore, for Mr Xi to worry. Job losses in manufacturing will stoke tensions among blue-collar workers, which is why the party has started rounding up labour activists (see article). The loyalty of the middle class, long accustomed to unremitting growth, will become increasingly difficult to secure as growth slackens further. Both the middle class and the equally large cohort of rural migrants that dreams of joining it are vital to the country’s economic success, and both are capable of mobilising regime-threatening opposition. Mr Xi talks a good reform, but has yet to follow through, and has shown that his preferred way of dealing with any threat is to resort to time-honoured tactics of cracking down ever harder. Chinese authoritarianism has been at times surprisingly deft. Just now, it does not look so.


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