Pathways to Political Pluralism in China

As the Communist Party of China (CPC) performs its decennial transfer of power at its 18th Congress this month, hints of a looming economic crisis have many China watchers talking about prospects for political reform. In a nice piece by Edward Wong in Saturday’s New York Times, we hear journalist and historian Yang Jisheng say that, “In the next years, [China] should have a constitutional democracy plus a market economy.” Acknowledging the steep odds against that happening, however, Yang then suggested a kind of mid-range alternative: “To break one-party rule right now is probably not realistic, but we can have factions within the party made public and legalized, so they can campaign against each other.”

I don’t follow Chinese politics closely enough to know how common calls like this are, but I do know the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe well enough to say that I think the path to reform through routinized competition within the ruling party is unsustainable and therefore highly unlikely.

What Yang foresees echoes the idea of “socialist pluralism” that Mikhail Gorbachev first floated in 1987 as part of his strategy for reinvigorating the Soviet system. As Archie Brown describes in The Gorbachev Factor, when Gorbachev initially used the term “pluralism,” he was not talking about opening the door to new political movements or even to competition within the Communist Party; he was just talking about allowing more voices to be heard in Soviet newspapers. Importantly, this crack in the edifice of Soviet censorship was not motivated by a liberal belief in the inherent value of free speech. Instead, the turn toward openness, or glasnost’, followed an instrumental logic that saw a freer flow of information on a narrow range of approved topics as the best way to check the stagnation and corruption that Gorbachev and his sympathizers saw as the sources of the USSR’s economic malaise.

Of course, the reform process quickly began to spin out of Moscow’s control in some corners of the Union, and by 1990 Party leaders were looking for ways to regain a handle on the situation. That quest led to open talk of political pluralism, with three options on the table: 1) a formal end to one-party rule and steps toward real multipartism; 2) a continuation of one-party rule, but with open competition allowed among factions within the party; or 3) a crackdown that would, in effect, attempt to roll politics back to the status quo ante.

Well, the progressives within the Party chose Door #1, and their reactionary rivals then banged on Door #3 in the form of the failed August 1991 coup that finally and ironically finished the USSR off. The fact that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) didn’t mess around with formal intra-party competition before opening Door #1, however, tells us something about those factions’ assessments of the sustainability of open pluralism in a one-party system.

I happen to think they were right. The logic of political competition dictates that today’s losers want to become tomorrow’s winners. To do that, they need to increase the relative strength of their coalition—relative, that is, to the faction that has just defeated them. When you’ve lost the fight within the existing pool of people whose preferences affect that outcome, one of the best ways to strengthen your coalition is to expand that pool.

In closed authoritarian systems like the USSR’s or China’s, there’s plenty of room for expansion, and the faction that loses today can try to mobilize or connect with movements outside the party who can help tip the balance in their favor. A ratchet effect ensues that eventually and inevitably extends the process beyond the wall that separates the ruling party from the rest of society. When that happens, a revolutionary situation develops, and the dominant faction is forced to choose between capitulation or retrenchment by force. Recognizing this logic from the start, party leaders usually choose between suppressing competition or stepping aside with as much of their dignity (and fortunes!) as they can take. Tottering leaders occasionally try for the middle ground, but those attempts tend to collapse quickly, and those collapses aren’t always kind to the departing rulers.

In the Soviet Union, this ratchet effect occurred in some of the 15 republics before it spilled into the open at the center. As early as 1988, pro-reform factions in some of the republican Communist Parties were tolerating and even encouraging emergent environmentalist and nationalist movements whom they saw as potential allies in their struggle for power against their more conservative leadership. Those encouraging signals, in turn, helped those movements stage protest events that swelled from dozens or hundreds of participants in 1987 and 1988 to tens and even hundreds of thousands by 1989.

Well, we—including the Communist Party of China—all know how that worked out. In China today, the pool of potential allies for reformist factions within the Party is large and growing. Citizens increasingly fed up with industrial pollution, land grabs, lax regulation, official corruption, and cultural repression comprise an array of proto-movements to whom losing factions in a more openly competitive system might turn.

Under these circumstances, I would expect the CPC’s leadership to try to retain control as long as it can, and then to craft as lucrative an exit as possible. The halfway house Yang proposes wouldn’t stand for long, and it’s hard to imagine party elites thinking otherwise and burning their resources trying to prop it up.

So how does China get to political pluralism? I can’t say exactly, but my guess is that it will be more disruptive than the incremental change Yang describes. As someone who studied the Soviet Union as it came undone, I think I have some idea of the cognitive process that produces that kind of prediction. We can see where pluralism would inevitably lead, but we can’t fathom the powers that be stepping aside without a fight, so we imagine hybrid forms that would seem to split the difference. Those hybrid forms, however, reflect a linear model of political change that very rarely occurs in nature, and I doubt China will be an exception to that rule.

Leave a comment


  1. kerokan

     /  November 12, 2012

    Don’t you think that China’s transformation since Mao’s death has shown its ability to reform its system in a way that USSR was not able to? My impression from recent scholarship is that China is a dictatorship that allows limited protests and media freedom to cope with corruption.

    • I’m talking very specifically about the switch from one-party rule to some type of open pluralism, not “reform” in a general sense. The marginal expansions in space for speech and assembly are important, but they’re not as difficult as the jump to open factional competition in which head counts play a decisive role.

    • Gyre

       /  November 15, 2012

      Considering how universal corruption seems to be to the upper ranks of the Chinese elite I don’t think that’s the job of the Chinese media so much as an occasional understanding that something needs to be printed if they want to keep any faith in the system.
      Also there’s the issue of the growing Chinese middle class, which is far harder to repress than a nation of peasants that the Chinese government was used to.

  2. Oral Hazard

     /  November 13, 2012

    Don’t forget Tibetan independence. I’m not holding my breath for that one.


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