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Will China Collapse? Challenges to the Regime; By Dr. Geeta Kochhar

C3S Paper No. 0101/2016

With the slowdown of Chinese economy, not only there is speculation of bubble bursting, but predictions for the collapse of Chinese regime. Alongside, a series of attack on high-level corrupt officials deepens the possibility of some serious differences brewing within the Party and deviations in Party ideologies. Although there seems no immediate intention of the CCP to step down for initiating democratic-style Party rule, but the possibility of dissent is quite high.

When the former President Hu Jintao called for “maintaining stability with progress” (wen zhong qiu jin), it was clear that under the cover of economic slowdown, there looms a threat to the stability of the state. The issue, however, is what has shaken the regime? Some argue it is the political infighting with Bo Xilai’s dismissal from the Party; others posit the huge number of self-immolation cases by Tibetan monks and ethnic tensions. Few others believe that the escalating protests of the Chinese peasants, as witnessed during Wukan incident, are the main reasons. Pointers are also towards the enhanced international pressure on bringing concrete political reforms in China. None of these provide a clear and coherent answer for the discomfort of the Communist leaders at the highest echelons. However, there definitely is an undercurrent which is jolting the party, apparently visible in the public opinion on social media. The major challenge to the stability actually lies within the Party due to the weakening of its ideological base.

During Mao Zedong’s era, there were major clashes of ideology and power struggle, but Mao, the great winner in the game, advocated “continuous revolution” (buduan geming). A revolution founded on the elimination of the opponents and creating a social consent with strong ideological conviction. In late 50s, he opened a discourse on diverse ideas under the slogan “Let the hundred flowers blossom” (bai hua zhengming) and later launched an anti-rightist movement for the destruction of confronting ideas and opinions.

Since then, people in China are required to be politically correct in raising their voices. This also means that anything and everything is acceptable as long as one does not cross the “Lakshman Rekha” (border line) of political correctness guided by Mao’s ideology. The IT revolution has broken those barriers in ways. Although still under heavy surveillance, people are able to raise voices of dissent and criticise the actions of leaders. The real threat to the Party is the changing ideology of the comrades that is destroying the basic tenets of the Party. Influenced by the lure of materialism, Party cadres in today’s China are not working for social well-being, but for individual or rather personal well-being. Even though Party leaders at all times call for resisting hedonism, money-worship, and individualism.

On March 6, 2015, Prof. David Shambaugh, a renowned political scientist published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal entitled “The Coming Chinese Crackup”, pointing to the last stage of Chinese Communist rule. He cited five vulnerabilities of the regime and systemic weakness: lack of confidence among country’s wealthy people, intensified political repression, insecurity among the party leadership, too pervasive and deep rooted corruption, and an economy stuck in systemic trap. The article triggered a fresh series of debate over China’s political reforms and the demise of the Party.  Prof. Zhao Suisheng, a Professor of Chinese politics and foreign policy at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, while linking the crisis within the party to the social inequalities and corrupt system, stressed that the issue is grave due to the sluggish economic growth or probable downturn of the economy. The huge social, economic, and environmental costs for rapid economic growth has caused deep discontent among the masses and China has entered a period of intense social contradictions, which can threaten regime’s legitimacy.

The lack of confidence for China’s economy is rooted on the issue of sustainability. Although the reforms plans are aimed at increasing domestic consumption, reducing bureaucratism, and introducing fiscal reforms, but vested interest groups are hindering the progress of such reforms. In 2011, Beijing’s Tsinghua University Professor Sun Liping and his team released a “Research Report Series on Social Progress” stating that powerful vested interest groups are obstructing further reforms. It warned that the Chinese government needs to be cautious of the possibility of falling in a “transition trap”.

Later in March 2012, the former Premier of the State Council Wen Jiabao called for political reforms to avert another “historical tragedy” like the Cultural Revolution. The issue since then has been to re-assess the reforms and to find a path for deepening of reforms. The stalemate in the Party is on the future course of reform. Many traditionalists call to reverse the trend in order to bring greater equality, citing that the reforms has created a class of beneficiaries and a class of losers. The society, hence, face a period of “protruding contradictions”, whereby the classes are confronting to reap the benefits. However, the neo-reformists demand further deepening of reforms, pointing that there is no way to return, as the reverse path is the end of the Party. The current Chinese President, Xi Jinping belongs to the latter.

After Xi Jinping came to power, the Party issued Document No. 9 in 2013 to dig out any support of the West’s “universal values” – including constitutional democracy, civil society, free press, and neoliberal economics. Chinese official media published two commentaries reflecting Xi’s dissatisfaction with retired leaders who are bitterly opposed to reform or who refuse to leave the limelight. One article complained that “the obstacles facing reform are so intransigent and ferocious… as to be beyond people’s imagination” (Xinhua, August 19). The other criticized certain retired cadres for “interfering in the (current) administration” and even “establishing cliques and cabals” in the party.

At the same time, Xi Jinping’s strong fist against corrupt officials under the tag line “beat up the tiger and swat the fly” (da hu pai ying) is considered as a fight to root out his own political opponents. Critics believe that he is attacking both the Shanghai faction of Jiang Zemin and the Communist Youth League faction of Hu Jintao, a move for selective anti-corruption drive to consolidate his own power. Xi Jinping is labelled as “Version 2.0 of Mao Zedong”. However, the present day selection process of top leadership is more complicated than Mao’s era with sub-national leaders, particularly the provincial party chief and governors exerting real influence. Although Xi Jinping is attacking on corrupt official, but the real challenge is to convince the masses, as there is steady decline in the trust for CCP’s capability to rule. Unless there is strong ideological convincing and concrete reform path adopted, the future of CCP will remain gloomy.

[Dr. Geeta Kochhar is Assistant Professor (Chinese), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Email:]

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