Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, last month © Eric Gregory Powell

Tucked away between China’s top spy school and the ancient imperial summer palace in the west of Beijing lies the only place in the country where the demise of the ruling Communist party can be openly debated without fear of reprisal. But this leafy address is not home to some US-funded liberal think-tank or an underground dissident cell. It is the campus of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the elite training academy for the country’s autocratic leaders that is described in official propaganda as a “furnace to foster the spirit of party members”.

The Central Party School was established in 1933 to indoctrinate cadres in Marxism, Leninism and, later, Mao Zedong Thought, and past headmasters have included Mao himself, recently anointed president Xi Jinping and his predecessor Hu Jintao. In keeping with some of the momentous changes that have occurred in Chinese society, the curriculum has been radically revised in recent years. Students still steep themselves in the wisdom of Das Kapital and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” but they are also taught classes in economics, law, religion, military affairs and western political thought. As well as watching anti-corruption documentaries and participating in revolutionary singalongs, the mid-level and high-ranking party cadres who make up the student body are given lessons in opera appreciation and diplomatic etiquette.

A more significant change for an institution founded to enforce ideological purity is its relatively new role as an intellectual free-fire zone, where almost nothing is off-limits for discussion. “We just had a seminar with a big group of very influential party members and they were asking us how long we think the party will be in charge and what we have planned for when it collapses,” says one Party School professor who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to foreign media. “To be honest, this is a question that everyone in China is asking but I’m afraid it is very difficult to answer.”

How long the heirs to Mao’s 1949 revolution can hang on to power has been a perennial question since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Many dire predictions of imminent collapse have come and gone but the party has endured and even thrived, especially since it opened its ranks to capitalists for the first time a decade ago. These days the revolutionary party of the proletariat is probably best described as the world’s largest chamber of commerce and membership is the best way for businesspeople to network and clinch lucrative contracts.

In less than five years the Chinese Communist party will challenge the Soviet Union (69 or 74 years in power depending on how you count it) and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (71 years until 2000) for the longest unbroken rule by any political party. Modernisation theory holds that authoritarian systems tend to democratise as incomes rise, that the creation of a large middle class hastens the process and that economic slowdown following a long period of rapid growth makes that transition more likely. Serious and worsening inequality coupled with high levels of corruption can add to the impetus for change.

All these factors now exist in China but some political ­theorists, including many at the Central Party School, argue that the country is culturally and politically exceptional and the wave of authoritarian collapse still surging through the Arab world will never reach Chinese shores. Others, including influential Chinese intellectuals, distinguished western sinologists and even liberal-minded senior party members, believe these are the final days of the Communist era and the party will be washed away if it does not launch serious political reforms soon.

Professor Lin Zhe
Professor Lin Zhe outside the Central Party School. Corruption, she says, could 'lead to the demise of the party' © Eric Gregory Powell

“One thousand autumns and 10,000 generations”

Chen Shu is a professor of party history, “party-building” and Mao Zedong Thought at the Central Party School and his views reflect orthodox thinking within the upper echelons of the party. For all the intellectual ferment and free exchange of ideas that goes on inside the campus walls foreigners are still forbidden from entering without special permission, a rule that harks back to when the school’s very existence was a state secret. Chen has graciously agreed to meet the FT in a tea house across the road from the Summer Palace but he is impatient when asked what he thinks the future holds for the party.

“Those theories about a China crisis or China collapse are all completely western,” he says, in a tone that makes clear ­“western” is pejorative. “The more pressure placed on Chinese culture and the Communist party, the more united and cohesive they become and the more capable they are of producing miracles.”

Lin Zhe is a Central Party School professor who has spent the past two decades researching how the party tackles corruption in its ranks. At the same tea house she cheerfully predicts the party will celebrate its centenary in power in 2049 and says that it is preparing, as the Chinese saying goes, to rule for “one ­thousand autumns and 10,000 generations”. But both Lin and Chen also caution that the party’s legitimacy is threatened by endemic corruption that has spread to every level in the system. “This problem is very dangerous and, as China’s top leaders have said, it could lead to the demise of the party and the demise of the nation,” Lin says.

Authoritarian resilience

In his 1992 book, The End of History and The Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that western liberal democracy represents the final form of human government and the endpoint of ideological evolution. His argument was boosted by the dramatic expansion of democracy during the 20th century. In 1900, no nation in the world had competitive multi-party politics with universal suffrage and only about 12 per cent of humanity lived under a form of government that could be regarded as somewhat democratic, according to the American NGO Freedom House. By the dawn of the 21st century, 120 of the world’s 192 internationally recognised countries were governed by electoral democracies and 60 per cent of the world’s population lived under a democratically elected leadership.

Fukuyama, now a senior fellow at Stanford University, says he is convinced that China will follow the path of most other countries, probably through a gradual liberalisation that eventually yields democracy. But if that does not happen, he says popular uprisings of the kind seen in the Arab spring are also possible.

“China’s political model is just not sustainable because of the rising middle class – the same force that has driven democracy everywhere,” he says. “The new generation in China is very different from the one that left the land and drove the first wave of industrialisation – they’re much better educated and much richer and they have new demands, demands like clean air, clean water, safe food and other issues that can’t just be solved by fast economic growth.”

Estimates of the size of China’s middle class vary depending on the definition used but one thing is certain: it was virtually non-existent two decades ago and is now growing exponentially. The consultancy McKinsey says that what it calls the “upper middle class” – a segment of the population with annual household incomes of between $17,350 and $37,500 – accounted for 14 per cent of urban Chinese households last year but will account for 54 per cent of households in less than a decade.

China has often been held up as evidence to debunk Fukuyama’s theory, with critics arguing that the party’s process of constant reinvention is far more responsive to the needs and demands of its subjects than traditional authoritarian systems. Until a few years ago, David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and a leading expert on China’s political system, was a strong proponent of this view. But he has changed his mind and now believes that the party is in a state of decline that echoes the dying days of Chinese dynasties throughout history.

The signs include a hollow state ideology that society does not believe in but ritualistically feigns compliance with, worsening corruption, failure to provide the public with adequate social welfare and a pervasive public sense of insecurity and frustration. Other signs include increasing social and ethnic unrest, elite factionalism, over-taxation with the proceeds mostly going into officials’ pockets, serious and worsening income inequality and no reliable rule of law.

The Central Party School
The Central Party School in Beijing, training academy for China’s political elite © Eric Gregory Powell

Shambaugh says a powerful indicator of just how little faith exists in the system is the number of wealthy Chinese elites with offshore assets and property, offshore bank accounts and children studying in western universities.

“These individuals are ready to bolt at a moment’s notice, as soon as the political system is in its endgame – but they will remain in China in order to extract every last Renminbi possible until that time,” he says. “Their hedging behaviour speaks volumes about the fragile stability of the party state in China today.”

The mummy in the crystal coffin

Hanging directly above Tiananmen – “the gate of heavenly peace” – at the south entrance of the Forbidden City, a giant portrait of Mao Zedong stares out across the eponymous square to the imposing mausoleum where his mummified corpse lies draped in a Communist flag. Every morning of the week except Monday, long lines of Chinese tourists snake across the square as they wait for a glimpse of the great helmsman in his crystal sarcophagus.

A decade ago it was common to witness loud emotional outbursts and swooning pilgrims dropping to their knees in the presence of China’s dead “red emperor”. But on a recent weekday, the dominant sentiment among onlookers seemed to be indifference or mild disappointment. “I waited in line for an hour for that?” said one middle-aged man with a regional Chinese accent. “I’m pretty sure that was just a wax dummy; what a waste of time.”

This subtle change in attitudes over the past decade represents a deeper shift in Chinese society that is hard to quantify but increasingly obvious. “The party’s ideological foundation is really very hollow,” says Perry Link, a professor at the University of California Riverside and one of the most well-respected western experts on China. “People join the party these days to make connections and get ahead rather than for any kind of socialist ideals.”

Probably the most important stimulus for heightened cynicism and questioning of authority has been the rise of mass internet communication. China’s online censorship regime is one of the most restrictive in the world, with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and countless other online sites and services blocked because of the party’s fear that these could be used to organise political opposition. But an explosion of government-controlled domestic alternatives, in particular the Twitter-like “Weibo” microblogging sites, has still allowed people to partly circumvent party control of public discourse in a way that has never been possible before.

As the Chinese economy slows and anger grows at a host of problems stemming from a lack of political inclusion, it is this loss of control over thoughts, ideas and messages that the party really worries about.

“Seven things that cannot be spoken of”

Shen Zhihua is a professor at East China Normal University who specialises in the Soviet Union and is the son of People’s Liberation Army officers who served alongside Mao in the revolution. He spent two years in prison in the early 1980s after he was falsely accused of spying for the CIA. In September 2009, Shen was among a small group of trusted scholars summoned by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin to discuss the fall of the Soviet Union. “Gorbachev betrayed the revolution,” Jiang told the group as he asked them to identify the specific elements that led to the Soviet collapse.

Shen Zhihua
Shen Zhihua, East China Normal University © Eric Gregory Powell

Jiang’s view is the accepted orthodoxy among China’s leaders including president Xi Jinping, according to Shen. In a speech to party members soon after he was made head of the party and military late last year, Xi said that the Soviet empire had crumbled “because nobody was man enough to stand up and resist”.

“I cannot over-emphasise enough the fact that the CCP [Chinese Communist party] ­leadership continues to live under the Soviet shadow – they are hyper-conscious of the reforms Gorbachev undertook and absolutely refuse to go down that path,” says Shambaugh from George Washington University.

Xi’s display of machismo fits with the more assertive stance he has taken on the international stage as China continues to grow into its role as the world’s “second superpower”. But as the new administration flexes its muscles abroad, most prominently in simmering territorial disputes with neighbours to the east, south and west, it paradoxically appears ever more anxious and uncertain at home.

“China has a lot more power militarily, diplomatically and economically than it did in the past and it can tell countries like the UK and US to back off in a way it couldn’t before,” says Prof Link. “But for all this new external power they seem a lot more fragile at home, a lot more concerned about how long they can stay on top of this bubbling cauldron.”

Since his ascension, Xi has presided over a series of harsh crackdowns on dissidents, free speech, ethnic separatists and civil society and has shown absolutely no sign that he is the covert political reformer that some had hoped. “Document Number Nine”, a secret memo that was distributed to cadres in April and leaked through overseas Chinese media, shows how worried the new leadership is about perceived threats to party rule. “Western hostile forces and domestic dissidents are constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere,” the document says. “In order to preserve the party’s grip on power, attention should be paid to the ­mistaken ways of thinking, positions and actions.”

According to the document, the party is engaged in a “fierce” struggle involving seven grave threats that are now referred to in Chinese academic circles as the “seven things that cannot be spoken of”. First on the list is “western constitutional ­democracy” followed by other taboos such as advocating human rights, an independent judiciary, media independence and criticism of the party’s past.

“Many people are extremely disappointed by [Xi’s] words and his actions,” says Shen Zhihua. “But there are some who defend him and say once he has consolidated his power and stabilised the political situation then he will push through reforms.” By this logic, Xi’s authoritarian lurch is more tactical than strategic, a way of rallying the party faithful for the tough reform agenda ahead.

“The more pessimistic, and frankly more realistic, interpretation is that Xi has no fresh ideas so he just quotes Mao and tries to hold on tight to power,” says one reformist “princeling” son of a former senior Chinese leader, who knows Xi well but asked not to be named for fear of political repercussions. “If that is the case, then China has no hope and eventually the anger in society will explode into a popular uprising.”

No more miracles?

In the three decades since Deng Xiaoping launched market-­oriented reform and began opening China to the world, the ­country’s economy has grown by an average of about 10 per cent a year. This spectacular performance has lifted hundreds of ­millions of people out of poverty and led some to argue that China’s “market Leninism” has defied the theory that societies democratise as they get richer. But according to Liu Yu, an ­associate professor of political science at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Chen Dingding from the University of Macau, ­writing in The Washington Quarterly last year, “those who argue for Chinese exceptionalism overlook the fact that it is too early to tell whether China has proved or disproved modernisation theory.”

China’s per capita GDP was about $9,200 in purchasing power terms in 2012 but, according to Liu and Chen, this has not yet reached the level where countries with similar cultural and ­historical backgrounds began transitioning to democracy. In 1988, democratising South Korea and Taiwan had per capita purchasing power GDP of $12,221 and $14,584 respectively (in 2010 dollar terms), according to Liu and Chen. The levels for the Soviet Union and Hungary in 1989, as they began their political transitions, were $16,976 and $11,257 respectively (2010 dollars).

These numbers suggest continued rapid economic growth in China will put it on the cusp of its own political transformation within just a couple of years. By this logic, the party’s main source of legitimacy since abandoning Maoism – its ability to provide rapid growth and rising living standards – is the very thing that will eventually lead to its loss of absolute political control.

But there are now strong signs that China’s investment-heavy, export-oriented, state-dominated economic model is running out of steam and that growth could slow more sharply than Beijing expects. China’s nominal year-on-year GDP growth rate has slowed from 17 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2011 to about 8 per cent in the second quarter of this year and last year’s growth was the slowest in 13 years. Most economists expect the pace to moderate further over the next few years.

Mao Yushi
Mao Yushi, 'godfather of modern Chinese macroeconomics'. He predicts China will face an 'unavoidable' financial crisis © Eric Gregory Powell

By most measures, Communist China now has one of the most unequal societies on earth, with most of the wealth concentrated in the hands of a small, politically connected elite. If the current slowdown were to morph into an economic crisis or trigger widespread unemployment, most analysts believe the government would quickly face some sort of popular uprising. “In the past two centuries, the last 30 years has been the only extended period without war, famine or mass persecution, a period in which everyone’s lives have been getting better and better,” says Mao Yushi, the 84-year-old economist regarded as the godfather of modern Chinese macroeconomics. “The legitimacy of the regime comes mainly from the success of economic reform but the big problem is that expectations are now very high.”

The old economist was purged repeatedly during the Maoist era. He spent 20 years on and off doing hard labour in the country­side and enduring beatings and humiliation. After his political rehabilitation he went on, in 1993, to found the Unirule Institute, an ­independent economic think-tank, and he remains highly influential among reformers within the party and government.

Mao predicts China will face an “unavoidable” financial crisis in the next one to three years thanks to a huge build-up of bad debt and an enormous property bubble but he thinks this could in turn push the country toward democracy. “I think a financial crisis could actually be good for China as it would force the government to implement economic and ­political reforms,” Mao says. “That is the best-case scenario but the worst case would be a violent uprising followed by a long period of unrest and ­economic decline, like we see in Egypt.”

The negative example of Egypt is constantly invoked these days by both Chinese and western political analysts. Like the former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Communist party has been highly successful at squashing any organisational force in society before it can take root.

“The current Chinese system will definitely collapse at some point – it could be months, years or decades but when it collapses everyone will say of course it was bound to happen,” says Prof Link. “The question that really worries me is what will come next. The party has wiped out any group it doesn’t control or which doesn’t see the world like it does and there is nothing to take its place.”

The Olympic curse

It is surely just a cute coincidence of history that no authoritarian regime except Mexico’s has lasted more than a decade after hosting a modern Olympic games – think Berlin in 1936, Moscow in 1980, Sarajevo in 1984 and Seoul in 1988. Five years from now the Chinese Communist party, which saw the 2008 Beijing games as its “coming out party” on the world stage, may not only have defied this Olympic curse but also surpassed the life cycle of the Soviet Union and helped debunk democratisation theory.

But even the party’s most ardent defenders concede that China’s leaders cannot rule indefinitely without addressing the demands for political inclusion from a growing middle class that cares more about clean air, clean water, clean government and safe food than GDP growth rates.

After three decades of stellar economic expansion, China’s growth model is starting to run out of steam and if it were to face an abrupt slowdown the party would lose its most convincing source of legitimacy. If the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, were to seize the initiative and launch meaningful political reforms then China might follow the example of Taiwan and South Korea in the late 1980s and 1990s and orchestrate a peaceful transition to a more pluralistic and democratic system.

On the verdant campus of the Central Party School, some professors are already studying how such a feat could be achieved. But so far Xi has shown no inclination to do anything except tighten the party’s grip on power and punish those who question perpetual one-party rule.

Many people inside and outside the party worry that by trying to suppress growing popular discontent using the same old tools of repression, the new administration may wake up one day to find the masses in the streets. “Xi Jinping and this administration provide the last chance for China to implement a social transformation [to a more liberal political system] that comes from within the party and within the system,” says Shen Zhihua. “Without these reforms there will certainly be a social explosion.”

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