ACCEPTING AUTHORITARIANISM: STATE-SOCIETY RELATIONS IN CHINA’S REFORM ERA
Stanford University, $24.95, 253 pages
Reviewed by Brett M. Decker
Rich Chinese are learning to love communism. The same goes for the rapidly growing middle class. This reality is beginning to shatter the illusions of Western democracies that have pursued hyper-engagement with Beijing under the hope that increased economic freedom would inspire the Chinese masses to demand more political freedom. It ends up that the opposite dynamic is in play. As the Chinese economy continues to thrive and life becomes better for millions, upwardly mobile Chinamen are embracing the Communist Party because it is delivering substantive and sustained progress.
“Accepting Authoritarianism,” a new book by California State-Long Beach professor Teresa Wright, explains how China’s prospering capitalist class has paradoxically become the strongest bulwark for the communist state. In general, reform is not appealing to Chinese business leaders because they have been co-opted by the Communist Party. No one gets rich without the tacit approval - if not the very visible helping hand - of the authoritarian government. The state controls resources, property, labor, permits and everything else needed to operate a business, so businessmen have to play ball with Beijing. Contrary to propaganda about the Middle Kingdom being a new laissez-faire Wild West where entrepreneurial gunslingers shoot it out in a competitive marketplace, the bureaucracy picks winners and losers in this centrally controlled economy.
Some of communism’s biggest supporters are China’s new millionaires and the white-collar professional class. The status quo in the country is working out well for them so there’s no reason to rock the boat. Moreover, democratization is not in their interests because it would potentially create untold numbers of new rivals for their privileged position. From the perspective of corporate titans, political reform would raise operating costs and thus threaten the bottom line. “Should workers gain the right to vote, they likely would support higher wages and improved working conditions, thus diminishing the profits of private capital,” the author explains. The party keeps labor costs in line, which makes firms dependent on the Politburo for profitability. The extent to which entrepreneurs are in bed with party leaders - and the corruption that is part and parcel of the relationship - means big business is opposed to greater transparency in the system because it would shed light on this unholy alliance.
At the center of economic development in the People’s Republic is intensifying class warfare and class envy among the people. There’s not much to tie the 1.3 billion Chinese together in a common cause or a shared sense of nationhood. The different classes don’t trust one another, and divisions exist across regional and ethnic lines. Country folk dislike urban dwellers, a feeling that’s reciprocated in the cities. These divisions are countenanced by Beijing because they work to the government’s advantage. The only thing that keeps these people together in such a vast land is the Communist Party, which defines what Chinese identity is. For the majority, the party is China. Such societal fragmentation makes it less likely that the populace will unify to protest the regime.
Steps taken by the Politburo after the massacre of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 are key to understanding how the cadres have consolidated their power. Deng Xiaoping pushed dramatic economic liberalization, freer markets and foreign partnerships while simultaneously clamping down even harder on political dissent. Although free-wheeling enterprise zones in such places as Shanghai and Shenzhen offer material signs of modernization, people in China are less free today than 20 years ago - and party control is less challenged. Affluence and state brutality have tag-teamed the polity to quell significant opposition. Beijing also has increased social-welfare entitlement expenditures to deepen the population’s reliance on goodies dispensed by government.
Low public expectations have worked to the contemporary party’s favor too. Compared to Mao’s murderous rule in which tens of millions of Chinese starved to death or were brutalized in work camps, the past 35 years of lower-intensity persecution have seemed like peaches and cream.
It’s possible that China could continue to become richer without becoming freer. The Communist Party has moved further away from political reform even as it promotes economic reform. Leaders in Beijing insist they are creating a new political-economic model for one-fifth of the world’s population and have nothing to learn from Western economies teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and dissolution. The communists are doubling down on that bet, with Western consumers bankrolling the wager. The wild card is whether Beijing can keep economic expansion rolling to match public expectations and handle demographic changes. A slowdown - let alone a major crash like the rest of the world recently experienced - would undermine the myth of communist invincibility. In the mean time, wealth creation stabilizes the party’s grip on power.
The answer to the question of whether capitalism leads to democracy will determine China’s future, and much of the world’s. The race is on to see if freedom or communism wins the Chinese soul.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times.
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Brett M. Decker, former Editorial Page Editor for The Washington Times, was an editorial page writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, Senior Vice President of the Export-Import Bank, Senior Vice President of Pentagon Federal Credit Union, speechwriter to then-House Majority Whip (later Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and reporter and television producer for the legendary Robert ...
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