In the wake of the 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party seemed morally bankrupt. Average Chinese complained bitterly about graft and special privileges reserved for the Party’s elite, and few believed the Party’s sloganeering about socialism when officials practiced ruthless capitalism. The army, too, had lost face: The Tiananmen killings showed that the “people’s army” could open fire on the people themselves. The urban economy seemed locked within an inefficient and corrupt iron framework of the old work-unit system. No one either inside or outside China saw the country’s authoritarian system as a model to follow.
Twenty years later, the Chinese Communist Party has built a new popularity by delivering staggering economic growth and cultivating a revived — and potentially dangerous — Han Chinese nationalism. China’s material successes, as seen in its gleaming city skylines and piles of foreign currency holdings, suggest the government’s top priority is economic growth. The increasing socioeconomic diversity in Chinese society suggests that the regime seeks liberalization and might one day throw open its political system.
These are dangerous misconceptions. The Party’s top priority remains what it has always been: the maintenance of absolute political power. Economic growth has not sparked democratic change, as one-party rule persists. Through a sophisticated adaptation of its system — including leveraging the market to maintain political control — China’s Communist Party has modernized its authoritarianism to fit the times.