FT: How Beijing Kept Its Grip On Power / Why three Ps mean end of an era in N Korea

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

FT: How Beijing Kept Its Grip On Power

The Tiananmen debacle taught leaders of the Chinese Communist party that elite unity was critical to its survival

By Minxin Pei

It is hard to miss the self-congratulatory mood in Beijing’s corridors of power these days. The Chinese Communist party was practically written off after its army crushed the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square on June 4 1989. At home, it faced a shocked and resentful population. Internationally, it was isolated. The fall of communism in the former Soviet bloc further demoralised its members. A sense of impending doom permeated Beijing.

Twenty years later, things could hardly be more different. China is riding high as a new economic and geopolitical giant. The party’s rule has never felt more secure.

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.

As the world commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen tragedy, it is time to reflect on how the party has held on to power against seemingly impossible odds and whether the strategy it has pursued since Tiananmen will continue to sustain its political monopoly.

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.

On the surface, the collapse of the Soviet Union reduced China’s strategic value to the west. But after overcoming its initial shock, the party adroitly exploited the situation by using the turmoil in the former Soviet bloc to instil in the Chinese public the fear that any political change would bring national calamity. Rising Chinese nationalism, stoked by official propaganda, allowed the party to burnish its image as the defender of China’s national honour.

The wave of globalisation that followed the cold war offered another golden opportunity. Capitalising on the lure of the Chinese market, the party befriended the western business community. In turn, western businessmen found a natural partner in the Chinese Communist party, its name notwithstanding.

With any self-respecting multinational rushing into the Middle Kingdom, those who refused to recognise the new reality risked being outcompeted. In China, they also found undreamt-of freedom in doing business: no demanding labour unions or strict environmental standards. Wittingly or otherwise, western business has become the most powerful advocate for engagement with China. Its endorsement, along with the pragmatic policy pursued by western governments, has lent a legitimising gloss to the party’s rule.

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.

There is already a backlash against the party’s post-Tiananmen pro-elite policies, which have resulted in inadequate social services, rising inequality and growing tensions between the state and society. Externally, the alliance with western business is also fraying, as China’s bureaucratic capitalism – anchored by state-owned monopolies and mercantilist trade policies – begins to alienate the party’s (genuinely) capitalist friends.

So when the Chinese Communist party toasts its post-Tiananmen success, it should be under no illusion that the good times are here to stay.


The writer is the author of ‘China’s Trapped Transition’ and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009


Why three Ps mean end of an era in N Korea

By Christian Oliver and Song Jung-a in Seoul and Demetri Sevastopulo in Hong Kong

Published: June 3 2009 19:39 | Last updated: June 3 2009 19:39

Kim Jong-il looks set to be the last North Korean leader to enjoy a semi-divine status and rule the nation single-handedly.

No matter how well he purges internal opposition, his youngest son will have to rely on a politburo of party and army officials if he takes power, amplifying the risks of infighting in the nuclear-armed state.

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.

“It is difficult to expect personal worship for Kim Jong-woon like that for his father and grandfather,” Kim Tae-woo added.

“If Kim Jong-il falls now, the most likely scenario will be a politburo system centred around senior military and party officials, which is likely to cause a power struggle.”

Many political analysts have seen a recent flurry of military activity as a show of force by Kim Jong-il, who probably had a stroke last year, as he seeks to ward off any challengers to the succession of his dynasty.

“They are not ready to execute a war. Kim Jong-il is testing loyalty, screening people to see who is really dedicated. He is a master of this,” said Daniel Pinkston, North Korea expert at International Crisis Group.

In the case of his father’s sudden death, Kim Jong-woon would have little immediate weight. Kim Jong-il, by contrast, had been active in politics for 30 years before the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994.

Kim Jong-il will have ensured his favoured son has mentors in place. Chief among these is his brother-in-law, the canny political veteran, Chang Sung-taek.

But James Shinn, the former top Central Intelligence Agency analyst for East Asia, said the big question was whether the North Korean apparatus would allow the son to take over.

“It depends on the transition process – does Kim senior get to hang around and gradually ‘hand him over’ to the key folks in the apparatus, the way Kim Il-sung did?” asked Mr Shinn.

He said that scenario would make it easier for Mr Kim to systematically build a support structure for his son, which would be more difficult the earlier he passes away.

“I think the insiders would just as soon turn on him if Kim senior dropped dead suddenly, or had another stroke [which is the most likely scenario],” said Mr Shinn.

Almost nothing is publicly known of the characters of the military top-brass whose powers have been steadily growing under Kim Jong-il.

“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.

However, Mr Pinkston, at International Crisis Group, cautioned against writing Kim Jong-woon’s political obituary prematurely.

“Yes, there are hurdles for Kim Jong-woon. He is young, he has had no time to build up a support base. But why would Kim Jong-il choose somebody incompetent? He has put his whole life into this system.”




China’s success outstrips democracy for now
By David Pilling

Published: June 3 2009 19:59 | Last updated: June 3 2009 19:59

“The broad masses of students sincerely hope that corruption will be eliminated and democracy will be promoted.”

This quotation is not taken from a petition of students camped out on the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. Nor is it a statement of support from Chinese academics. It is, in fact, from the hardline 1989 editorial in the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist party, which foreshadowed the brutal crackdown to come. Of the students’ hopes for probity and democracy, the editorial noted without apparent irony: “These too are the demands of the party and the government.”

Clearly the party meant something rather different by corruption and democracy. Twenty years on, it continues to talk about combating the former and promoting the latter. Yet corruption has continued apace as party cadres use their influence to carve out wealth and power. There have been shows of intent, such as the 2007 execution of the head of the food and drug administration for bribe-taking. But, if anything, venality has intensified, partly because the gradual transition to a free market economy has thrown up richer opportunities to grab booty.

As for democracy, whatever it meant to Deng Xiaoping, whose views the editorial were supposed to reflect, it had little to do with standard western definitions. Zhao Ziyang, the party general secretary and student sympathiser who died in 2005, said Deng’s view of “political reform” was strictly limited to administrative tinkering. By democracy, he meant such things as slimming down the state and smoothing relations between central authority and the provinces.

Zhao, whose queasiness at sending in the tanks cost him his job and 16 years of liberty, in tapes smuggled from his house-turned-prison, quoted Deng as saying: “Political reform absolutely must not be influenced by western parliamentarian political ideas. Let there not be even a trace of it.” In Prisoner of the State, the book of those tapes published last month, Zhao says Deng emphasised the usefulness of dictatorship, believing that it allowed the Chinese government to “use a sharp knife to cut through knotted hemp”, bypassing what he regarded as the inefficient parliamentary process.

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.

Jonathan Fenby writes in a thoughtful Far Eastern Economic Review essay that the “comfortable western assumption” linking material advancement with political liberalisation has been undermined by the party’s ability to adapt.

Mr Fenby says the growing middle class, the supposed agent of the democratic push, is exercised by not-in-my-backyard issues, such as the routes railways should take. Such movements are unlikely to transmute into calls for parliamentary democracy, he argues. If anything, the newly comfortable are more likely to support the status quo lest some new system deprive them of their privileges.

Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, takes the argument a step further, arguing that China’s deep-seated Confucionism is incompatible with western-style democracy. He contends that to embrace democracy at this stage – halfway through China’s economic takeoff – would be to accept an “alien transplant”. If democracy does eventually emerge, he says, it is likely to be quite different from what westerners assume is their universal template.

Mr Jacques is right to argue that democracy, as patented by the west, is a product of European history, not a natural phenomenon. But he and others who emphasise the enduring nature of Chinese authoritarianism underestimate the attractiveness of the democratic idea itself. Soap and television are not universal either. But people the world over have grown to like them nonetheless. Representation and limits on absolute power are attractive concepts in their own right.

Zhao certainly thought so. Condemned to house arrest by the party he once headed, he spent years pondering the meaning of the Tiananmen uprising and its bloody suppression. His conclusion, so different from that of Deng, was that the Communist party should compete for power. Without checks, corruption would flourish and power would be abused, he said. After 20 years, Deng’s narrow view of democracy has prevailed. At some stage, a broader one will follow.


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