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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 18-26

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The Limits of Authoritarian Resilience

Bruce Gilley

The success of the recent leadership transition in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might be interpreted as evidence that China's authoritarian regime is historically unique. More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist orders of Eastern Europe, the CCP not only remains in power but has installed a younger, better-educated, even more confident set of successors at its head. And the CCP's Sixteenth Party Congress in November 2002 marked the first smooth leadership transition in a communist regime not to have involved the death or purging of the outgoing leader.

Authoritarian regimes have been traditionally understood by political theorists as being terminally weak at their core, due to the absence of any of the checks on power that the rule of law, the separation of powers, or popular contestability would afford. The view is that the inherent weakness of these regimes will inevitably become more pronounced as the relative balance of resources shifts over time away from the state and toward autonomous social forces, often as a result of such forms of development as economic growth or international opening. At these stages of development, it is generally believed, authoritarian regimes find themselves suffering from what might be called "the logic of concentrated power"—that is, the tendency for power to concentrate in the hands of a few individuals or personalistic factions and to be fatally misused by them, with results that typically include misgovernment, a deterioration of legitimacy, corruption, and weak norms of conduct among governing elites. 1

But China—whose people represent roughly half of that part of the [End Page 18] world's population which is not allowed to choose its leaders though democratic elections—has so far defied the traditional model. Some have attempted to account for this in terms of a fundamental reconsolidation of the CCP's house following the nadir of the Party's legitimacy after the 1989 Tiananmen protests. The CCP, these observers argue, appears to have effectively solved the democracy deficit without democracy by putting in place mechanisms that have mitigated, or possibly eliminated, the traditional weaknesses of authoritarian regimes. Andrew Nathan nicely sums up the evidence for such mechanisms under the rubric of "regime institutionalization."

I think that this characterization is mistaken, a point I will argue below in reference to three features of authoritarian regimes that have historically been among the most difficult to institutionalize: 1) the process of elite promotions; 2) the maintenance of elite functional responsibility; and 3) popular participation.

Certainly by comparison to the bedlam of the Mao Zedong era, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is today a fairly institutionalized state. But relative to the actual needs of contemporary Chinese society, the PRC falls conspicuously short: Any given feature of a political system can be said to be "institutionalized" only when it is both consistent with a state's normative ideals and effectively implemented. By these standards, the evidence of PRC institutionalization remains faint. Nor does it seem likely that such institutionalization will eventually strengthen. Indeed, since 1949, there have been discernable cycles of consolidation and breakdown in China: The limits of regime institutionalization have been reached before and, in response, the "logic of concentrated power" has reasserted itself. Something similar is likely to happen again and, in due course, weaken the institutionalization apparent at the CCP's recent Sixteenth Party Congress.

Present Institutionalization

Samuel P. Huntington characterizes political institutionalization as the process by which a given feature of a political system acquires the traits of "adaptability, complexity, autonomy, and coherence." The feature in question may be a process, an institution, or a rule. When institutionalization is achieved throughout a political system, Huntington says, it produces government which is "effective, authoritative, [and] legitimate." 2

Although this definition suffices to explain a government's effectiveness or authoritativeness, Huntington has almost certainly misconceived the particular nature of the problem of legitimacy in an authoritarian context: He fails to grasp that for any of the above mentioned features of...