That loss is compounded by the collapse of the CCP’s credibility among ordinary people. To be sure, its opacity, secrecy and penchant for untruth always implied a credibility problem. However, in the past decade a series of scandals and crises — involving public safety, adulterated food and drugs, and environmental pollution — has thoroughly destroyed what little credibility lingered.
One such episode was the sale of tainted baby formula milk in 2008. Official suppression of news about the incident (which occurred just before the Beijing Olympics) not only led to the deaths of many infants, but also left ordinary Chinese even more distrustful of the authorities. On the environmental front, perhaps the most telling evidence is Beijing residents’ preference for the US embassy’s air-quality readings over those of their government.
For a regime whose credibility is gone, the costs of maintaining power are exorbitant — and eventually unbearable — because it must resort to repression more frequently and heavily.
However, repression is yielding diminishing returns for the CCP, owing to a third revolutionary development: the dramatic decline in the cost of collective action. Autocracies stay in power if they can divide the population and prevent organized opposition activities. Although the CCP faces no organized opposition today, it confronts virtually organized protest activities on a daily basis.
Based on estimates by Chinese sociologists, 500 riots, collective protests and strikes occur each day, up almost four-fold from a decade ago. With widespread ownership of mobile phones and Internet-connected computers, it is far easier than ever before to organize supporters and allies.
Moreover, growing defiance reflects the public’s perception that the authorities have grown afraid of the people and tend to yield to their demands when confronted by angry protesters. In some of the highest-profile collective protests in the past year — the land dispute in Wukan in Guangdong and the environmental protests in Dalian, Shifang and Qidong — the government backed down.
If governing by fear is no longer tenable, China’s new rulers must start fearing for the party’s future. As the country’s silent political revolution continues to unfold, the question is whether they will heed its signs, or attempt to maintain an order that — like the French monarchy — cannot be saved.
Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US.
Copyright: Project Syndicate