One question that should have been asked about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) just-completed leadership transition is whether the entire elaborately choreographed exercise was akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The installation of a new leadership may matter little if the end of CCP rule is both foreseeable and highly probable.
Many observers would find this assertion shocking. They insist the CPP has proved its resilience since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991. Why should predictions of the collapse of CCP rule be taken seriously now?
While the future of China is unpredictable, the durability of its post-totalitarian regime can be estimated with some confidence. China may be unique in many ways, but its one-party rule is hardly exceptional. Its political order suffers from the same self-destructive dynamics that have sent countless autocratic regimes to their graves.
Among many of the systemic flaws of autocracy, degeneration at the top, epitomized by ever-weaker leaders, is progressive and incurable. The exclusive and closed nature of autocracy bars many talented individuals from rising to senior government positions, owing to a pattern of succession that rewards political loyalty over capabilities. Savvy autocratic rulers favor less talented successors, because they are easier to groom and control.
Leadership degeneration accelerates as the autocratic regime ages and grows more bureaucratic. As individuals in such regimes ascend the hierarchy, patronage and risk aversion become the most critical factors in determining their chances for promotion. Consequently, such regimes grow increasingly sclerotic as they select leaders with stellar resumes, but mediocre records.
The most lethal strain of leadership degeneration is escalating predation among the ruling elites. The most visible symptom is corruption, but the cause is intrinsic to autocratic rule. Typically, first-generation revolutionaries have a strong emotional and ideological attachment to certain ideals, however misguided. The post-revolutionary elites are ideologically cynical and opportunistic. They view their work for the regime merely as a form of investment and so seek ever-higher returns.
As each preceding generation of rulers cashes in its illicit gains from holding power, the successors are motivated by both the desire to loot more and the fear that there may not be much left by the time they get their turn. This is the underlying dynamic driving corruption in China today. The consequences of leadership degeneration are easy to see: faltering economic dynamism and growth, rising social tensions and loss of government credibility.
The puzzle is why neither the compelling self-destructive logic of autocratic rule nor the mounting evidence of deteriorating regime performance in China has persuaded even some of the most knowledgeable observers that the end of CCP rule is now a distinct possibility.
An obvious explanation is the power of conventional thinking. Long-ruling regimes — like the Soviet Communist Party –– are typically considered invulnerable, even just before they collapse.
However, those who believe that the CCP can defy both the internal degenerative dynamics of autocracy and the historical record of failed one-party regimes might benefit from reading Russian theorist Leon Trotsky. Dictatorships are regarded as indestructible before they fall, Trotsky reminds us, but their demise is viewed as inevitable once they are toppled.