Wall Street Journal on May 2, 2012, published a report on China by Professor Minxin Pei. Excerpts below:

Nowadays Chinese leaders seem too busy putting out fires to think about their regime’s long-term survival. Last month, they had to dispatch Politburo member Bo Xilai in a messy power struggle on the eve of a leadership transition. This past week, the daring escape of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng from illegal house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing provoked another crisis. When rulers of one of the most powerful countries in the world have to worry about the defiant acts of a blind man, it’s high time for them to think the unthinkable: Is the Communist Party’s time up?

Yet, beneath the façade of strength lie fundamental fragilities. Disunity among the ruling elites, rising defiance of dissidents, mass riots, endemic official corruption—the list goes on. For students of democratic transitions, such symptoms of regime decay portend a systemic crisis. Based on what we know about the durability of authoritarian regimes, the Chinese Communist Party’s rule is entering its most perilous phase.

China is an obvious authoritarian outlier. Of the 91 countries with a higher per capita GDP than China now, 68 are full democracies, according to Freedom House, 10 are “partly free” societies, and 13 are “not free.” Of the 13 countries classified as “not free,” all except Belarus are oil producers. Of the 10 “partly free” countries, only Singapore, Tunisia and Lebanon are not oil producers. Tunisia has just overthrown its long-ruling autocracy. Prospects of democracy are looking brighter in Singapore. As for Lebanon, remember the Cedar Revolution of 2005?

So the socioeconomic conditions conducive to a democratic breakthrough already exist in China today. Maintaining one-party rule in such a society is getting more costly and soon will be utterly futile.

…the second number is 74—the longest lifespan enjoyed by a one-party regime in history, that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1917-1991).

Social scientists have yet to discover why one-party regimes, arguably the most sophisticated of all modern-day autocracies, cannot survive beyond their seventh decade in power. What is important to note is that systemic crises in such regimes typically emerge about a decade before their ultimate fall. In the Soviet Union, it was the combination of the stagnation of the Brezhnev era and the ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan. In Mexico, the stolen presidential election of 1988 delegitimized the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s rule.

The Chinese Communist Party has governed for 62 years. If history offers any guidance, it is about to enter its crisis decade, and probably has at most 10-15 years left on its clock.

One possible reason for the demise of one-party rule is the emergence of a counter-elite, composed of talented and ambitious but frustrated individuals kept out of power by the exclusionary nature of one-party rule.

Many will turn their frustrations against the party. Over the next decade, this group could grow into tens of millions, forming a pool of willing and able recruits for the political opposition.

The odds do not look good for those in Beijing who want to maintain the status quo indefinitely. They must begin thinking about how to exit power gracefully and peacefully.

Mr. Pei is a professor of government at the American Claremont McKenna College.



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