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Tom Doctoroff

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China's Communist Party: Not Losing Control

Posted: 10/03/11 11:51 PM ET

The relationship between the people and the Chinese government is, to say the least, ambivalent. The country's wealthiest citizens scurry to obtain foreign passports as a hedge against future uncertainty. As evidenced by populist outrage after the Wenzhou train disaster, the little guy rails against bureaucratic corruption, particularly when his interests are affected. The number of small-scale protests (mostly local disputes) has steadily climbed; according to official statistics -- surely conservative -- more than 100,000 "public disorder events" occur each year. Rampant land seizures at fire-sale costs represent abuse of eminent domain on a massive scale. The dramatic restructure of state industries has dislocated many urban workers, stripping them of the dignity provided by a job. And the internet, particularly micro-blogs, provides further grist for the mill -- concerns about government impartially and favoritism have been digitally fanned. Bureaucrats who protect unsavory types or lead fat-cat lifestyles disgust the public.

And yet, the Party is in firm control and will not lose its grip any time soon. First, the government has become ruthlessly efficient in nipping dissent in the bud. Every housing complex pays off one or two under-employed residents to snoop on neighbors and report suspicious goings on to authorities. (These people are usually unassuming and older, and belie impressions of China as Orwellian. They also handle complaints about uncivil behavior, including overflowing trash, construction dust and paint fumes.) According to foreign estimates, over $100 billion is spent every year maintaining public order, using both low- and high-tech means. The Ministry of State Security employs at least 100,000 individuals and has deployed sophisticated algorithms to monitor -- and censor -- sensitive on-line chats, BBS forums and micro-blogs.

Second, the West vastly underestimates of the power of the Communist Party as perhaps the strongest, most enduring "brand" in China. Why is Mao Zedong, the father of "New China," still idolized by the majority of the population despite colossal mistakes during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? Because he, under the banner of the Party, "liberated" China from foreign invasion and civil war, and unified the country. Propaganda organs proclaim Mao's actions were "seventy percent positive and thirty percent negative." Most agree. Mao still undergirds Party's legitimacy -- to wit, Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai's 2011 revival of revolutionary "red songs."

The prosperity covenant. When Deng Xiaoping rose to power, the Communists rejected cultish hagiography in favor of future focus. Deng was a quintessentially Chinese pragmatist; his maxims about "black or white cats" and "crossing rivers by feeling stones" resonate deeply. He imposed a scientific economic model -- central management of key resources, liberalization of non-strategic industries, gradual urbanization, solicitation of foreign investment, and mercantilist foreign policy -- that is still effective. Despite the naysayers, "socialism with Chinese characteristics" continues to work. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, between 1978 and 2008, per capita income increased six times and the number of rural residents living in absolute poverty -- i.e. on less than $1.50 per day -- decreased from 260 million to 16 million. China is creating a middle class that will reshape 21st century industry and commerce. The Communist Party, despite its heavy hand, has street cred. Unless growth collapses, citizens will grudgingly support national leaders.

Stability is sublime. Third, the Chinese people crave order -- stability is the platform on which progress is built. Confucian society is patriarchic, at peace with top-down compliance. The son/subject does not exist independent of his obligations to father/ruler. Democracy in China is tantamount to responsiveness, not representation. Individual rights are abstractions, unless linked to immediate economic or family interests. There were reports of "walking protests" in response to the Arab Spring, but the government effortlessly squelched disturbances. People do not feel safe -- China is not yet "harmonious," and the social safety net is in tatters -- but there is no Plan B. The foundation of Party legitimacy remains the masses' faith in their mandarins' ability to -- somehow, someway -- guide China's long march to prosperity. Father knows best, even if he sometimes makes mistakes.

Into the future: The Singapore model? What is the future of China's governance? Reform will come from within the Party and it is conceivable that Singapore's Confucian, self-monitoring model of administration transplanting itself in China. Experimentation would start in major cities. Debugged, the model could replicate itself across smaller urban areas. Does anyone know how to get from here to there? No, but Singapore's passion for technocratic competence, bottom-line accountability, and meritocratic advancement are compatible with the Party's underlying pragmatism. And the Chinese are stunningly efficient at adopting preexisting models. Of course, there are many hurdles. Official pay must rise before corruption can be rooted out; an interconnected web of interests between local, provincial and national officials must be shredded; a win-win relationship between urban and rural areas must be forged. But the future of China's political system will not be made in America or Europe.