In 1989, a chorus of Western voices predicted the party’s collapse. “One foot in power and one foot on a banana peel,” was how the late, great David Schweisberg of United Press International described the party’s predicament. I, too, filed my share of sensationalist dispatches, intimating a coming collapse.
But the party has defied such predictions. And it has done so by taking a brilliant step: giving a lot of Chinese — in the countryside, the cities, the media, the security services and the government — a bigger stake in preserving the existing system.
It’s easy to conclude that the double-digit economic growth that has persisted since the early 1990s is what has kept the communists in power. And yes, Deng Xiaoping’s trip to Shenzhen in 1992 opened the door to the resumption of pro-market economic reforms and an export-led growth strategy. The results include huge trade surpluses, a massive capital influx and the creation of Deng’s social contract with the Chinese people: You can get rich and I won’t mess with you, or you can dabble in politics and I will.
But China’s communists needed a lot more to stay on top of the heap. Instead of thwarting change, as it had in 1989, the party realized that it needed to lead it.