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China’s adaptive authoritarianism is here to stay

By Benjamin Herscovitch - posted Monday, 18 November 2013

Capitalist liberal democracy’s twentieth century victories against expansionist fascism and communism were hard-won and yet also unequivocal.

As Francis Fukuyama argued in 1989: The ‘end of history’ arrived in the wake of the ‘unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism’; politically and economically, there was ‘nothing else towards which we could expect to evolve.’

With the rise of shrewd forms of authoritarianism challenging the liberal mantra of open markets and societies, the presumptive end of history may prove short-lived.


Savvy authoritarian regimes around the world are carefully plotting paths to relative peace and prosperity while trampling on democratic rights and freedoms: One-party state capitalism in China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); anti-democratic populism in Russia under the seemingly perpetual presidency of Vladimir Putin; and technocratic and monarchical Islamism in Qatar under the House of Thani.

With the CCP presiding over the most populous nation in history and the world’s second largest economy, the evolution of communist party rule in China is the most revealing and high-stakes test of authoritarian government.

China under the CCP is beset by severe institutional, environmental, political and social challenges.

Between 2008 and 2012 alone, 143,000 government employees were convicted of graft or dereliction of duty, while air pollution caused an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. At the same time, 16% of Chinese households have had their land seized or homes demolished during China’s urbanisation drive, and inter-communal violence in the province of Xinjiang killed nearly 200 in 2009 and more than 100 this year.

Although severe, these and other strains on the Chinese political system are unlikely to sweep the CCP from power.

With a strong track record of reform in the post-Mao era, the party has shown that it has the will and wherewithal to mitigate many of the sources of instability and popular discontent, and thereby secure its political survival.


Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, the CCP under Deng Xiaoping supercharged the economy with a measure of economic liberalisation. By de-collectivising agricultural production and launching business-friendly special economic zones, Deng laid the foundations for more than 30 years of uninterrupted economic expansion. This period has seen annual economic growth rates average 10%, and GDP per capita has surged to in excess of US$5,500.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the CCP also decentralised elements of decision-making via the consolidation of village elections. Even if elected local officials never overtly oppose party policy, choosing village leaders charged with responsibility for fiscal management, land allocation and education has given citizens at least a measure of influence over key areas of public policy.

Under the Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping administrations, the CCP has continued its pragmatic reformism with massive spending to curb China’s atrocious pollution problems, initiatives to better manage the expropriation of rural land, and crackdowns on graft and maladministration.

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You can buy a copy of Benjamin Herscovitch's latest book Accountable Authoritarianism: Why China’s Democratic Deficit Will Last by clicking here.

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Follow him on Twitter @B_Herscovitch.

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