The widespread SARS epidemic in China, together with growing social tensions and the diversification of Chinese society, pose new challenges of legitimacy and style to the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing apparently seeks to redefine the legitimacy of the Party and change its ruling style without overhauling the existing one-party system. How likely is it that the Party’s preemptive strategy of recruiting private entrepreneurs and developing intra-party democracy can thwart social forces and a public demand for multiparty democracy, in either the short or the long term? Can the Party renew itself without a concomitant democratization of the whole society? Does the new Chinese leadership have any incentive to initiate significant political reform and reassess the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy? How long can the Party maintain power? For all its advantages, would the collapse of one-Party rule in China also create new problems for China, its neighbors, and the United States?

Three distinguished China experts participated in a May 12 seminar to discuss these and related issues. The three speakers included David Shambaugh of The George Washington University, Bruce Dickson of the same university, and Cheng Li of Hamilton College. Both Shambaugh and Cheng Li are currently fellows at the Wilson Center. On the next day, Shambaugh and Li spoke at a breakfast seminar on Capitol Hill on the same topic.

Shambaugh kicked off the discussion by asking why the Chinese Communist Party survived the 1989 Tiananmen incident while former Soviet Union and East European communist regimes collapsed consecutively in 1989 and subsequent years. According to Shambaugh, the Chinese Communist Party, although a decaying institution for many decades, has managed to muddle through over the years, even though about two thirds of the factors that contributed to the collapse of communism in Soviet Union and East Europe are also present in China. In addition to maintaining economic growth, Beijing’s strategy to forestall potential opposition includes recruiting social elites into the Party, preventing the rise of civil society, keeping control of military and paramilitary forces, and developing intra-party democracy. This does not guarantee, however, that the Party will remain in power in the years to come. At what point the continuing decay of the Party will lead to an ultimate explosion is an open question, Shambaugh concluded.

Dickson discussed the evolving relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and private entrepreneurs, and the implications for political reform of recruiting “red capitalists” into the Communist Party. While many foreign observers expect that socioeconomic change will inevitably cultivate an independent civil society and lead to political change in China, Dickson’s argued that Beijing has built closer ties with society by successfully recruiting private entrepreneurs into the Party. Specifically, twenty percent of private entrepreneurs have joined the Party, while Party members account for only five percent of China’s total population. Similarly, business associations serve as links between government and enterprises, rather than seeking for an autonomous role in society. Under this situation, the Party has no incentive to initiate fundamental political reform. According to Dickson, the case of China does not fit conventional theory of civil society, which suggests an inevitable confrontation between the state and society.

Li highlighted the changing characteristics of the Chinese Communist Party in terms of the new leaders’ personalities, their economic, social and political programs, and new norms governing China’s elite politics. As he argued, Chinese President Hu Jintao had cultivated a low-profile personality before he succeeded Jiang Zemin as Party boss and state president. With rich political wisdom and long-time experience in China’s inland region, President Hu has promoted his “new deal” that seeks for balanced regional economic development, social justice and fairness, and political transparency and institutionalization. Thus, Hu’s “new deal” has skillfully distinguished him from the retiring Jiang Zemin as well as Jiang’s protégé, Vice President Zeng Qinghong. The “new deal” also contains new norms for power sharing among Party elites, including fluidity of elite turnover, checks and balances among factions, and a quiet competition between “populist Hu” and “elitist Jiang.” Li predicted that the intra-party competition would eventually result in a peaceful split of the ruling Party into two parties in ten or twenty years.

In brief, the three speakers observed the significant changes in the Chinese Communist Party in terms of its constituencies, leadership structure, ruling style, and public policies. While none of them predicted an immediate collapse of the Party and social chaos in China, the United States should prepare for the worst scenario. As one congressman pointed out at the breakfast seminar on Capitol Hill, no one can exclude the possibility of a governing crisis in China if Beijing fails to control SARS in the months to come.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
Ph: (202) 691-4020