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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 27-35

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Threats to Party Supremacy

Bruce J. Dickson

With the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) having emerged from its Sixteenth Party Congress in November 2002 with a new leadership and an updated program, what is the outlook for the political system that it controls?

The ease with which the recent turnover of power was handled bespeaks an unprecedented degree of institutional stability within China's political elite. And yet the CCP has for some time now been watching its grassroots organizational strength ebb away, the victim of a number of stresses that have been generated by the Party's progressive integration with a rapidly changing society. The CCP's policies of "reform and opening" have meanwhile had unintended consequences that have further weakened the prospects for its continued political monopoly: Due to an expanding private sector, the Party no longer controls where people live and work; due to the spread of internet access, satellite television, and alternative media, it no longer controls what information people have or how it is disseminated; and due to a combination of larger disposable incomes and political liberalization, it no longer controls what people do with their spare time. To manage these consequences, the Party has adopted a new strategy of control. As necessary as this strategy has been, it has effectively reoriented the Party relative to Chinese society, and in a way that raises a question of long-term survival common to many a liberalizing authoritarian regime dominated by a single party: Will adapting to a new economic and social environment strengthen or actually weaken the Party's hold on power? [End Page 27]

Many observers, both within China and beyond, expect that continued economic reform, privatization, and integration into the international system will lead to economic developments that will in turn spur forms of social development—specifically, the rise of civil society and, ultimately, the onset of democratization. This is a seductive view, one based on the often-reviled but still popular insights of modernization theory. In truth, however, democracy is far from a "natural" response to economic and social development: While related to these levels of development, it is also a distinctively political process driven by distinctively political actors (both within and beyond the regime). The CCP knows this, and it is taking steps to prevent organized demands for political change from emerging outside the Party.

The CCP's strategy has been two-pronged: to forge corporatist links and, at the same time, coopt economic and technical elites. 1 Beginning in the 1980s, China saw the formation of a myriad of economic, social, and professional organizations. Party or government officials have since dominated the top posts of many of these organizations, allowing the state at once to abandon its "totalitarian" aspirations and maintain a decisive measure of control over the most influential groups in society. 2 For this reason, very few of these organizations are even close to enjoying the degree of autonomy that normative models of "civil society" demand. But neither do they seek that degree of autonomy, because in China autonomy is akin to impotence. They prefer instead to be embedded within the state, as similar organizations in most East Asian countries and most developing nations also prefer. 3

Meanwhile, the Party has been recruiting the kind of economic and technical expertise needed to promote economic modernization. The rationale here is itself two-fold: First, the CCP wants to be connected with the types of people it needs to achieve continued growth, which is a main source of the Party's contemporary claim to legitimate rule. Second, the CCP wants to preempt efforts by these new elites either to form their own groups in opposition to the Party, or to align with other regime opponents. Cooptation of this kind is not the CCP's traditional manner of party-building, which was to target common folks—mainly laborers and farmers—and to do so by creating cells where they live and work. But the Party is now devoting more and more emphasis to those with developed entrepreneurial and technical...


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