China's crackdown: Making the country more like Tunisia to avoid Tunisia's fate?

by John MacBeath Watkins

China is in the midst of a major crackdown. Ai Weiwei, who designed the bird's nest stadium for China's Olympic games, has been detained, his studio has been ransacked and computers taken, and now the regime has announced that he is being investigated for "economic crimes." We can be certain that many less visible activists are being similarly harassed, detained, and as an afterthought, been given the name of a crime to have committed.

I have no doubt that the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern dictatorships have something to do with this. The question in my mind is, does such a response actually make the Communist Party regime more secure? Is it not making itself more like the regimes that have fallen?

In Egypt and Syria, long-standing state of emergency laws were one of the major grievances that led to the uprising. Authoritarian regimes may feel more secure when they have stifled dissent, but in so doing, they have deprived themselves of an important source of information about the countries they rule.

Consider the problem of corruption, which can occur in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. What is happening here is that an official is taking advantage of his or her possession of authority granted by the state to collect rents on that authority, as if it were their property. Of course, it is not their property, which is part of why this is a problem. In collecting these rents, the officials are undermining the state that granted this authority, much as the exploitative landlord in the revolutionary opera, The White-Haired Girl, undermined the system of private property with unjust and onerous rents.

The state needs to know when such an officials are enriching themselves at the expense of undermining the government they are supposed to serve. But if you put in that official's hands the ability to crush dissent, the official can deprive the government of knowledge of his crimes, and continue to undermine faith in the government.

Or consider the spark that set the Middle East in flames. Mohammed Bouazizi, a college-educated Tunisian forced to work as a fruit vendor because the jobs were going to people with better connections, ran into an official who humiliated him.

Bouazizi made only about $10 a day pushing his cart through the city and selling his wares. An inspector named Faida Hamdi is alleged to have seized his scales for weighing fruit and slapped him when he objected to her taking his apples, and Bouaziz's appeals to the government produced no action. No longer able to support his family because of this treatment, he doused himself with fuel and set himself on fire in front of a government building. Hamdi was investigated and cleared, then released from jail, apparently because in Tunisia's system, humiliating people and preventing them from making a living was perfectly legal -- perhaps even expected of such an official.

The incident spoke to the experience of many Arabs in several countries. How was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had the previous October been re-elected for a fifth term as president by the literally unbelievable margin of 89% of the vote, to know how much resentment his system of government was sitting on? Well, if you harass and imprison those who criticize your regime, as Ben Ali did, you've shut off that source of information. When you rig elections so that they can only turn out one way, you've lost another source of information.

Although the political parties in places like America and the United Kingdom compete fiercely for control of their governments, the elected officials only provide steering inputs into the system. Those who control industry continue to do so, and what the British quaintly call Mandarins -- top-level bureaucrats -- continue to run the apparatus of the state. The illusion of instability -- frequent changes in the party in power -- covers a deeper stability. If China manages to make their state more like Tunisia by suppressing dissent, they will instead have the illusion of stability covering a deeper instability.

How can the Communist Party avoid this? One way would be to adopt a Western management technique. Just as entrepreneurs are a creative force in an economy -- a dynamic that helps provide the rapid growth that helps legitimize the Chinese government -- intrapreneurs can provide a creative force within an organization. If the Chinese government fears competition from without the Communist Party, they must have competition within the party. Factions  no doubt already exist in the party, but they function in an opaque way that does not allow them to gather information as efficiently as a separate party, in part because they do not have the information-gathering tool of elections to find out how best to appeal to the Chinese people.

The other route -- keeping the lid on as best they can -- will look stable until it blows up. After all, the paranoia of the Quin Dynasty is one of the reasons it lasted only about 14 years, and was replaced by more moderate regimes. Another reason it lasted for so little time was that it provided no mechanism for removing a bad emperor, a mechanism readily available to democracies, but more difficult for authoritarian states. Allowing the party's factions to compete in public might look like a route away from stability, but could in fact become a source of renewal for the party.

From my standpoint as a liberal, it would not be an ideal solution, but I'm trying to see a path forward for China that will allow it long-term stability without a Tunisia-style crackup, and I don't see a Western-style democratic state in its future. Marxist crisis theory says that the capitalist state will die because the contradictions within capitalism will require increasing repression to keep things together as the contradictions worsen. So far, that theory seems to apply better to the old Soviet Union than to any capitalist state. If China is to find a way forward that does not lead to the fate of the Soviet Union, its leaders must explore options that the Soviet leaders failed to examine.