Is there a Limit to China’s Authoritarian Resilience?

China Policeman © Beijing Patrol from US / CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

China is not alone in facing an uncertain future. The world is facing unprecedented challenges such as climate change, ageing populations, and income inequality. 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. During that time, China has overcome many challenges to its rule. The anniversary was celebrated by the largest military parade and mass pageant in Chinese history. The celebration was symbolic of the resilience of China’s Communist Party rule in an ever-changing world. Many in the western world had been ‘waiting for China to follow suit’ in the domino collapse of communist regimes in the 1980s (Tang, 2018). China has done the complete opposite, and continues to defy expectations of the West.

The People’s Republic of China has become ‘a booming economy – second biggest in the world - thanks to a swift rise that has rescued hundreds of millions of people from poverty’ (Perry, 2014). This may be one of the defining factors that makes China face the future with confidence. As Xi Jinping grows into his role for the long term, ‘regime support is high’ (Tang, 2018). Stability is encouraging huge foreign direct investment. Despite all of these positives, many question whether this continued upward turn can last. Universal problems have come to the forefront of political discourse in the west, such as environmental sustainability and debate around the problems associated with economic liberalization.

What is Authoritarian Resilience?

As ‘Authoritarian Resilience’ is a relatively new concept, there is no agreed or clear-cut definition. However, there are key factors that can be defining characteristics of Authoritarian Resilience. They are nations with a one-party system, with longstanding rule and absorptive political capacity. A common theme is also opposition to ‘international’ status quo (Tang, 2018).

Yet nearly thirty years later, history hasn’t ended and the authoritarian government is still going strong. No one can be sure about how long the Chinese regime will last… (Tang, 2018).

Authoritarian Resilience still going strong in China has incredible implications for the future geopolitical environment. Often these key traits of Authoritarian Resilience are at odds with the existing Chinese political system. This is because unlike many states, as well as creating a stable nation, China has indirectly created a by-product of a bipolar world with opposing political ideologies. China is a communist country, run by the world’s largest communist party, but it undoubtedly has some capitalist elements.

The flat-out rejection of the “status quo” and its legitimacy, is also at odds with the Chinese political system. Despite the principles of equality and anti-establishment sentiment, the Chinese Communist Party is evidently the status quo and even more so from an international relations perspective as it exudes stability and confidence on the national and international stage.


As China had a historic swing towards a socialist market economy in 1992, much has changed in the Chinese system. Decision making powers, both economic and administrative have moved to lower levels of government. Since coming to power, Xi Jinping has strengthened control of the political and economic system of China. Furthermore, he has demonstrated ‘media savvy presidential behaviour’ (Heilmann 2017), with public broadcasts and public appearances with his wife. This is a smooth modern way of transitioning to a 21st century way of communicating and presenting oneself to the general public.

Key factors as to why CCP rule is effective suggested by Heilmann (2017) include the considerable improvement in material living standards, loyalty to the current regime and widely shared patriotic or nationalistic sentiments. Moreover, from an authoritarian perspective, the maintenance of civilian control over the military by the party leadership as well as the party’s monopoly on power through surveillance and police offers protection to the state in case of civil unrest.

Despite these contrasting reasons, it must be underlined how popular the CCP is in China. Heilmann (2017) declares that ‘a move further in the direction of top-down policy making would make it rigid and inflexible’.

Future International Impact

The influence of China on the global stage has grown exponentially in the 21st Century. Xi Jinping’s recent initiative ‘the One Belt One Road’ initiative has increased investment in various nation states close to home as well as in far-flung destinations. In spite of this increasing power, the Chinese government never portrays its system as ‘an example for other states to follow’ (Heilmann 2017). Perhaps this is a nod to the argument that the Chinese system is not perfect, and constantly evolving. Indecision and weak policy implementation are not unique to China:

From a broader perspective, weak leaders, weak government and weak party are not trends that are unique to China, they are common challenges in today’s world (Cheng Li, 2012).

Looking West, the thirst for democracy in China from US and other European countries looks unlikely in the all the scenarios put forward. Evolutionary perspective of peaceful, controlled and negotiated transition from CCP rule to pluralistic democracy does not enjoy any support whatsoever (Heilmann, 2017). If the democratisation of China is ever to happen, despite it being unlikely at the moment, it must be, according to Heilmann (2017) ‘led by themselves - based on their experiences’. The pull of the western market-based democracy needs to be improved to renew its appeal as in recent years, China has proven that economic growth and prosperity for its citizens can be successful without democracy. This leads academics to conclude that calls for better governance are likely to resonate with the public more than calls for democratization (Dickson, 2005).

Scenarios for China’s Political Development (Heilmann, 2017)

Climate Emergency

China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter accounting for approximately 27% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is causing environmental damage around the world, which can lead to many other indirect problems. Current evidence shows that global warming has caused an economic loss of about $820 million to China’s corn and soybean sectors (Chen, et al., 2016). Chinese exports alone, are larger than the annual emissions of Japan or Germany (Liu et al., 2016). The damage to the environment can cause human damage as well as food damage. According to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, air pollution causes 1.1 million premature deaths a year (Kao, 2018). China’s cities are responsible for the major share (80 per cent) of China’s greenhouse gas emissions (Brødsgaard, 2016).

China has taken decisive action in climate change mitigation. In 2016, President Xi Jinping announced at the 19th Communist Party Plenum that China must be a ‘torchbearer’ in reducing climate change (Xinhua, 2017). The CCP has stated that it ascribes ‘great importance and commitment’ to Paris Climate Change Accords (Tambo et al., 2016). These statements were a few years after China launched its National Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation, and there has been many more policy documents detailing concrete action since then.

From the indefinite strategic document in 2013, creating principles such as ‘setting priorities’ and ‘widening participation’, China has quickly moved to creating goals in line with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The four key climate goals that China promotes are:

  • to achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030, making best efforts to peak early;

  • to lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60%–65% from the 2005 level by 2030;

  • to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy to around 20% by 2030;

  • to increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels by 2030 (Natural Resources Defense Council, 2017)

Furthermore, China has committed to its own goals, independent of the United Nations in a wide variety of fields. These include programs and measures to:

reduce coal-fired power plants to less than 50% in the next five years, a new China model of energy policies commitment on CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions reductions to less than 20% non-fossil energy use by 2030 without undermining their economic growth, newly introduced electric vehicles transportation benefits, interactive and sustained air quality index (AQI) monitoring systems, decreasing reliance on fossil fuel economic activities, revision of energy price reforms and renewable energy to less energy efficient technologies development (Tambo et al., 2016).

Air pollution is a visible problem in China, and has become a priority for the citizens and government to act to reduce. The Communist Part of China has introduced improved ‘environmental initiatives, implemented strict regulations and penalties on local companies and firms' pollution production management’ (Tambo et al., 2016). Thanks to the centralised nature of China’s government, when there is political will, measures can be introduced and enacted with enthusiasm and speed.

Many critics say that this is not enough, and China, with its strong economic resources, can do more. Academics think that these goals are often linked to China’s reputation and becoming a responsible world power: ‘Facing more international and domestic pressure, China understands its image will be greatly damaged if its own emissions continue to grow rapidly’ (Chen, 2008). As exports are a major part of China’s emissions, scientists have underlined how the global market chains need to be decarbonised by ‘improving production technologies and decarbonizing the underlying energy systems or else reducing trade volumes’ (Liu et al., 2016). The race for economic growth is often seen as one of the main reasons why emissions have dramatically increased in recent centuries and academics have argued that governments ‘need to shift its focus away from prevailing growth and yield‐maximisation models’ (Brooks et al., 2009).

Due to its political structure and relative stability compared to other major nations, China goes beyond what is politically necessary in its climate action. China is unique in tackling climate action head on without the political necessity. There is existing, but limited direct public action on the issue. This is a stark contrast to western nations who should, but don’t act to appease their public. Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old climate activist, has become a superstar in the west with her climate activism, leading to many students ‘on strike’ to protest the lack of action of western governments on climate change. Despite this, the United States have left the UN Climate agreements, leaving China to become the torchbearer. This is ironic as at one point the government officials from the United States of America were briefing that China alone could bring world to brink of climate calamity’ (Watts, 2009).

China’s action is logical through the framework of Authoritarian Resilience. Climate change, and in particular, pollution has an impact on the economy. Hence, there is strong domestic economic incentive for China to act. A 2018 University of Chicago report found that if the Chinese government sustains the pollution reductions it made from 2013-2017, the average Chinese citizen would see their life expectancy increase by 2.3 years (Lehr, 2019).

Climate change can create unpredictable consequences and therefore unintended instability. China is trying to reduce these risks, to protect China, as well as its political strength and stability. Scholars such as Bridget Hutter argue that environmental risks present a growing threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political legitimacy (2017). The government has portrayed itself well as a protector of the Chinese nation, but for many years, economic growth has been the top priority while environmental protection has been overlooked. This has changed in recent years as new policy came into effect, but ‘deeper systemic change is needed’ (Hutter, 2017).

The centralised power of the CPP has lessened in recent years as more policy making in less pivotal areas have been transferred to county level and below. As environment policy was considered less pivotal until fairly recently, local states play more of a role than in other major domestic issues. Scholars have pointed out that ‘China's "authoritarian resilience" cannot be fully grasped without adopting a local state perspective’ (Ahlers et al., 2015). Cities in particular are likely to use their status and power to pursue their own approach to the implementation of climate policies within the frameworks laid out by the central government (Brødsgaard, 2016).

In terms of policy implementation overall, ‘local bureaucracies have to obey upper levels, they still have substantial manoeuvring space to shape the implementation (Ahlers et al., 2015). This flexible manoeuvring, or ‘fragmented authoritarianism’ enables the CCP to retain its strict overall power, as well as giving a unique identity to local regions. In terms of climate policy, this approach is also helpful if there are ever mistakes made in its implementation or criticism of the scope of policy. If there is criticism, error and blame is not always directed at the upper echelons of power. As a consequence, the CPP has crafted itself as being flexible and resilient to change.

China’s is showing strength and stability in counteracting such major global changes, especially when compared to western nations like the United States. China’s role in taking the lead is guiding some to believe that authoritarian regimes such as China ‘may even prove more capable of responding to the complex political and environmental pressures in the region than some of its democracies’ (Beeson, 2010).

Ageing Population

According to a recent government report, growth in the working population had now stagnated and rising number of elderly people will have a far-reaching impact on the social and economic development in the country, especially if fertility rates remain low (Stanway, 2019). The knock-on effects of this demographic change are enormous. As the birth rate falls (for example, it fell by 3.5% in 2017), the Ministry of Education has to close schools. Recent data shows that more than 13,600 primary schools closed nationwide in 2012 (Stratfor, 2019). In contrast, the number of elderly people expected to rise from 194 million in 2012 to 300 million by 2025 (Stratfor, 2019).

The CCP has recognised it has a problem on its hands and is actively tackling the problem. In 2016, China decided to scrap its one child policy, and has been encouraging citizens to have more than one child on a national level. On a local level, some Chinese provinces are offering tax benefits, housing and education subsidies, and longer paternity and maternity leave to lift birth rates (Zhao, 2018). The government has also proposed raising the national retirement age from 55 to 60 for women and from 60 to 65 for men (Stratfor, 2019).

The current policies in effect in China will only have a temporary impact. Postponing the retirement age of Chinese nationals only delays the demographics crisis for another 5 years. More needs to be done to increase the liveability of the nation. Key factors that often improve the birth rate across the world are lowering the cost of living, job security, and most importantly, hope of a better future. Across the Western world, the birth rate is also declining. This shows that it is not just a government problem, but also a problem for civil society. This leads China’s youth to be put under pressure on caring for their parents as well as having children of their own. Economically speaking, China's population will grow old before the majority of it is ‘anywhere near middle-income status’ (Stratfor, 2019). In many other nations, this lack of concrete change for the ‘average joe’ would be symptomatic of wider economic problems and lack of engagement, but this is not the case for China. It’s quick policy changes, that will be slow to have an effect as there is no quick fix to demographics, shows a willingness to change and adapt. This speed of policy decision is unlike no other in the world, and is further proof that China is resilient to wider world problems due to its political structure.

Targeted campaigns could also help improve the situation. The government has been enthusiastically preparing for the coming of the era of big data (Zeng, 2016). Given the authoritarian nature of China, it could use its resources, especially in the field of big data to find the best approach to improve birth rates in places where it is needed most. China has the resources and numbers to be able to take varying approaches at a local and regional level to then take good practice and implement laws across the country. This approach has precedence in China. In many other nation states, cities are seen as the mainstay of regimes and are then rewarded and prioritised with government funding. This is the case across many European nations. Academic studies have praised China’s ability to fairly distribute across all regions. In the scope of authoritarian resilience, ‘urban bias meant to stabilize cities increases their size and potency in the future and undermines regimes over the long-term’ (Wallace, 2009).

As mentioned previously, support for the CCP remains high. Support can be attributed to the sense of trust and mutual obligation fostered among actors (Jiang, 2016). It is no surprise that the CCP’s main sources of resilience are ‘derived from its repressive power and appeals to Chinese nationalism’ (Pei, 2014). If China can use this feeling of devotedness to the Chinese nation, and the feeling of citizens having an active role to play, then any crisis can be averted, including a demographic crisis.

Income inequality

The growing problem of China’s demographics perfectly fits into the income inequality of the Chinese nation. Economic growth intensifies and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty thanks to Chinese public policy making decisions. Despite this success story, income inequality remains a talking point in political discourse. Despite substantial reductions of poverty in China, increasing inequality has become a pressing problem for the government (Gallagher et al., 2009). Figures from the economist Thomas Piketty show that inequality has risen in recent years.

Income inequality in China, 1978-2015 (Piketty, 2019)

One of China’s flagship policies of the modern CCP is to eradicate poverty, thereby reducing inequality. The overarching goal is one of the fundamental political and philosophical principles of the governing party. Policies from across departments are aimed to counteract poverty setting in. Government investment in areas of high poverty, particularly rural and outer regions of China is a priority.

The CCP’s transition to opening up and wider economic liberalisation policy of trading with the wider world is also with the goal of economic growth and improving the livelihoods of China’s people. As China began to open up, China’s political institutions began to change as well to be more representative of its people.

As early as the 1980s changing patterns of membership in the Central Committee toward provincial leaders and away from the military and the central bureaucracies (Shirk, 1993). This may explain why China has taken up its role in poverty and inequality reduction so strongly and actively promotes it through communication channels.

China has dealt with extreme poverty before in its recent history, and knows the consequences of unequal societies from its past. In recent years, growing income inequality has already pressured the Chinese government to shift its focus from promoting all-out economic growth to solving worsening social tensions (Malesky et al.,2010).

The likely characteristics that define whether a person lives in poverty or there is high inequality is often related to where you live. Regions of the large nation that is China vary widely. Outer regions such as Guizhou and Xinjiang have people who are regularly the most at risk of living in poverty. Regional approaches to inequality alleviation also take different methods of action and allow the CCP to allow flexibility in dealing with unique scenarios, appreciating the differences and intricacies of regions of China.

These methodical schemes, as well as being a part of a concrete national and international strategy, enables China to thrive on the world stage. This presence on the world stage, as a key influencer in international relations can help China make in-roads to other countries, where the belt and road initiative involves Chinese business and trade to go through new territories.

China has the authoritarian powers to strike back against social tensions, but in recent times, has began to let protests happen in the street and online. Academics suggest this may strengthen the CCP.

The decentralization of the power structure helps protect the legitimacy of central authorities since protests are managed at the local level. In sum, because they are managed and absorbed into the political logic of the authoritarian party-state, protests can contribute to regime stability (Martin, 2015).

Piketty’s research (2019) suggests China is more egalitarian than that of the United States, but less than that of European countries. In these western states, citizens have turned away from their governing parties and decided to back simple solutions, which often turn out to be false hopes. China may turn to offering incentives to its citizens too. Power sharing, collective decision-making, compromising, have now become the norms of elite politics in China (Tang, 2011). This ability and openness to compromise or, in what many view to be resilience, may suggest that China will see the use of more sticks as their ability to supply carrots diminishes (Gallagher et al., 2009). This is the case in authoritarian regimes across the world, as academics such as Hanson (2013) state ‘optimal combination of carrots and sticks varies across authoritarian regimes’.


China is not alone in facing major challenges. These global challenges highlighted in this essay are global problems, and can often be solved with more common policymaking on a global level. Many of these challenges are new territory for modern China. They have the ability to change the global order and have serious knock-on effects in the national political arena. Fundamental philosophical questions need to be asked as to the future direction of China’s political system as the world. In essence, the world is changing and so is China.

Economic growth cannot last forever, and demographic change, as well as future challenges underlined in this essay, make the future look gloomy. It seems that the social contract between China and its people may become unsustainable if the relationship is purely built on economic prosperity.

The west uses political expression and/or democracy as a relief valve, for those to hit back at the status quo and the establishment. This system may be imperfect and open to manipulation. In the west, many heavily industrialised nations have low engagement in these democratic engagement initiatives. This can lead to major policy decisions that the wider public disagree with. Nonetheless, China will need to develop coherent strategy to cope with inevitable economic readjustments and those left behind, in order to avoid backlash, which has affected western nations such as the UK and France.

China has seen remarkable economic growth and improvement in living standards. This essay suggests that due to the inherent success of the CCP it has set the bar very high for the future. It must be underlined that China has faced major challenges before, and is likely to do so again.

Game changers such as issues mentioned above, as well as the increasing rise technology will have on the world are immense. Automation, digitalisation, artificial intelligence may lead to many losing their current livelihoods. Middle class populations and those particularly in China, are at risk of becoming economically precarious. This may lead to populism, scapegoating of the ‘other’, and anti-establishmentarianism, as has happened in the west. The western neo-liberal consensus has failed to tackle the key issues of our time effectively. It is entirely understandable from a Chinese perspective that new and alternative ways of doing things, such as authoritarian resilience should not immediately be disregarded. China views the current structure as the correct one as China has a lack of alternatives. Other major actors project information excessively critical about China, and China feel obligated to use structures such as censorship, propaganda, limited access to protect its stability.

In conclusion, China’s Communist Party does not look like it is going anywhere, anytime soon. Under Xi, China is strong, more assertive, and self-confident with a “Chinese Dream.”自信论. China faces similar and often common challenges as in other parts of the world. Whatever path China takes, in order to combat future international challenges that are not unique to China, nation states need to look beyond their own borders. At the moment, China’s social contract is strong. The Chinese people have high expectations of its government. In order to meet these high expectations, political institutions, no matter their political structure, alignment or affiliation, need to work together to implement common good practices to find solutions to global issues.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi

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