(Updated below with Pilling article)
Since today is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen square riots (which are being observed in China with a mass ban on various international websites), now is a good time to reflect on the Chinese Communist Party’s spectacular success at staying in power since 1989. To that end, the FT has some great new articles on the political scene in China and North Korea.
First, think tank senior associate Minxin Pei on how the badguys won after Tiananmen (emphasis added):
How Beijing Kept Its Grip On Power
Chinese leaders appear to believe that they have discovered the magic formula for political survival: a one-party regime that embraces capitalism and globalisation. Abroad, the party’s success raises fears that it has established a viable new model for autocratic rule.
Clearly, the most important explanation for the party’s apparent resilience is its ability to deliver consistently high growth. However, largely through trial and error, the party has also developed a complementary and quite sophisticated political strategy to strengthen its power base.
A lesson taken from the Tiananmen debacle by the party’s leaders is that elite unity is critical to its survival. The political necessity of launching China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s required the party to form a grand alliance of liberals, technocrats and conservatives. But the liberals and the conservatives constantly clashed during the 1980s, over both the speed and direction of reform.
Disunity at the top sent out mixed signals to Chinese society and, during Tiananmen, paralysed the decision-making process. After Tiananmen, the party purged liberals from its top echelon and formed a technocratic/conservative coalition that has unleashed capitalism but suppressed democracy.
An additional lesson learnt from the party’s near-death experience in Tiananmen was that it must co-opt social elites to expand its base. The pro-democracy movement was led and organised by China’s intelligentsia and college students. The most effective strategy for preventing another Tiananmen, the party apparently reasoned, was to win over elite elements from Chinese society, thus depriving potential opposition of leadership and organisational capacity.
So in the post-Tiananmen era, the party courted the intelligentsia, professionals and entrepreneurs, showering them with perks and political status. The strategy has been so successful that today’s party consists mostly of well-educated bureaucrats, professionals and intellectuals.
Of course, when it comes to those daring to challenge its rule, the party is ruthless. But even in applying its repressive instruments it has learnt how to use them more efficiently. It targets a relatively small group of dissidents but no longer interferes with ordinary people’s private lives. In today’s China, open dissent is stifled but personal freedom flourishes.
… Ironically, this political strategy has worked so well that the party is now paying a price for its success. With the technocratic/conservative alliance at the top and the coalition of bureaucrats, professionals, intelligentsia and private businessmen in the middle, the party has evolved into a self-serving elite. Conspicuously, it has no base among the masses.
Next, how Kim Jong Il’s presume successor, Kim Jong-un might not so easily enjoy cult status:
Why three Ps mean end of an era in N Korea
It is unlikely he can even become a “Dear Leader” like his father. Cult-status reduces with every step taken away from the “Great Leader”, Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder who is celebrated for his guerrilla battles against the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s.
“The cult system cannot go on through the third generation,” said Kim Tae-woo, researcher at the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses in Seoul.
“For the cult system to be established, three things are necessary – power, personality and policy. But Kim Jong-woon is now only in his 20s, so it is hard to expect the three Ps from him.”
North Korea’s leaders rule by the Confucian notion of “mandate of heaven”. In state media, the firmament often expresses its pleasure with rulers via a rainbow or comet.
“I expect the transfer of power will be smooth while Kim Jong-il is alive. But after his death, it will be a collective leadership backed by the military with Kim Jong-woon as a titular leader,” said Choi Choon-heum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
(Don’t tell anyone, but I reposted both articles here)
Bonus: Via Planet Money, here‘s a video of a North Korean market. Seems kind of dirty and destitute, but otherwise about as bustling as some markets I’ve visited in Bangkok or South Korea:
China’s success outstrips democracy for now
By David Pilling
Those who imagined in 1989 that the suppression of students marked the death throes of authoritarianism have been bitterly disappointed. Today, the Communist party’s knife is sharper and the hemp less knotty: it rules largely through the consent of a population grateful for its management of a breakneck economy and its restoration of China’s long-lost prestige. If there were elections tomorrow – What a way to mark the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen! – the Communist party would probably win by a landslide.
This has come as a shock to many observers who assumed that the party would be hoist by its own contradictions. If it promoted market reforms, it would open up the forces of freedom and wealth that would serve as its own gravedigger. If it clamped down on liberalisation it would stifle economic growth with the same result. It has not so transpired. The party has it both ways: authoritarian government with increasing, though circumscribed, market liberalisation. The bars of the “birdcage economy” are still intact.
… After 20 years, Deng’s narrow view of democracy has prevailed. At some stage, a broader one will follow.