Does Its One-Party System Give China a Strategic Advantage?

More people, it seems, are willing to sacrifice political participation in exchange for perceived economic opportunity.  Increasingly, those in younger generations, emerging market economies and fledgling States, find China’s approach to governance preferable, or at least an acceptable alternative to, that of the United States.  Something that worries some foreign policy experts is that China’s one-party system gives it an advantage for crafting a long-term strategy for global dominance.

For one, without public elections the CCP avoids the encumbrance of short-term election cycles.  In the U.S. there are federal elections every two years.  This perpetual election cycle means there is a need for continual campaigning and fundraising.  Congressional expert David Mayhew argues that the primary motivation of members of Congress is reelection and that this goal influences how they behave and make public policy.  In contrast, without the distraction of short-term election cycles, and the adversarial nature of a two-party system, China’s CCP can unite around long-term Party or national goals.  The CCP also has the advantage of changing the rules when it wants absent the obstacles of checks and balances from an opposition party.  Hence, Xi Jinping is no longer bound to a two term limit as president.

In the U.S., Mayhew as argues, when Congressional and Presidential power is controlled by opposing parties, it results in more effective governance because it restrains partisan overreach.  But some of the benefit derived from bipartisan compromise in the U.S. may be attributable to media coverage from a free press and the fact that there are two parties, somewhat by design, in the U.S. system.  If one party pushes too hard for its own agenda or consolidation of power, there is a retaliation marshalled by opposition forces, so compromise is often required to make progress.  The tension and slow change produced by this structural conservatism was considered a virtue by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.  But in 2018, with the challenges of globalization and the immediacy of the news cycle and social media, this laborious approach to government action often seems unresponsive to voters who want progress in the next few months or years, not in the next few decades or generations.  

In China it’s different.  The CCP controls the media and silences dissent.  Its citizens aren’t permitted to question the Party too publicly or they may face impediments to their commercial ventures or even imprisonment.  Moreover, the public is indoctrinated with a whitewashed version of the history of China and the CCP.  The National Museum of China flanks the eastern side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing but there is no mention of the protests of June 1989.  Further, the Museum presents the U.S. as a covert backer of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in the Second World War rather than as an ally responsible for Japan’s defeat.  Since Tiananmen Square there hasn’t been a significant grassroots movement to bring democracy to China.  The Party has purged more moderate voices from its ranks and the hardliners have fortified their power.  With internal dissent absent, the Party can focus on a united vision for China’s future. 

The levers of power are so entrenched within the CCP, and the public memory so distorted, that the probability of consequential internal reform in China is miniscule.  Reform, a patient dream the U.S. held onto for decades, is a specter.  The best hope is to contain China’s influence with coordinated action from an international coalition of opposition. 

For further reading: