This is almost a standard question that people ask when they look at China ever since the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
The rise of the Jasmine Revolution and the collapse of the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years led many to believe that the days of the CCP are numbered, and it could collapse in years, months, and even days.
The fall of Mr Bo Xilai, which was seen as a bitter power struggle within the regime, has reinforced this pessimism.
However, such a perception is far from the reality.
The CCP continues to survive and expand.
Today, it has become the largest political party in the world, with more than 80 million members.
While it is legitimate to ask whether the CCP will collapse given the fact that the party is facing mounting problems, it is more important and meaningful to ask why it has survived and developed.
The survival of the CCP since the reform and opening up of China is not due to chance.
In the past three decades, the CCP has transformed from a one-party dictatorship to an increasingly open party system.
This differentiates the CCP from other communist parties in the Eastern Bloc before they collapsed.
After the fall of communism, Eastern European states chose the Western path, allowing different interests to found different political parties.
To avoid such a misfortune, the CCP chose a different way by opening the political process to all social and interest groups.
Thanks to this choice, China has evolved into an open party system under one-party rule.
Openness is becoming an important feature of China’s party system.
Any political system that is not open will become exclusive and closed.
Only with openness can politics be inclusive.
In the West, political openness materialises through external pluralism, that is, multi-party politics, in which every kind of interest can find representation in a party.
In China, political openness is realised through internal pluralism, which means the openness of the party.
When different interests emerge in society, the ruling party opens itself to them, absorbing them into the regime and representing their interests through different mechanisms.
The transformation of the CCP has been very rapid.
Since no opposition party is allowed, for any social group, entering the political process of the CCP is the most efficient way to express its interests.
The “Three Represents” concept proposed by Mr Jiang Zemin in the early 2000s typically reflects the CCP’s realistic perception that it has to represent different social interests.
Today, China’s increasingly large middle class, including private entrepreneurs, has demonstrated very strong demand for political participation.
This is why the ruling party kept pace with the times by not only providing constitutional protection to non-state-owned sectors, including private enterprises, but also allowing and encouraging private entrepreneurs to join the ruling party.
The change of the nature of party membership is an indicator.
In the Maoist era, workers, peasants and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) constituted the majority of CCP membership, while since the reform, intellectuals, professionals and the newly risen social stratum have made up an increasing proportion in the party.
After the successful incorporation of private entrepreneurs into the party and the political process, the CCP has now begun to put an emphasis on “social management” to expand its ruling foundation by absorbing more social forces, which have gained significant growth and development in the past decades.
As the social base of the CCP enlarges, the demand for intra-party democracy has also increased.
This is why the ruling party has been emphasising the importance of intra-party democracy and searching for manifold inner-party democracy in the past decade.
The effectiveness of such internal pluralist openness is no less than that of any other system.
Internal pluralism differentiates China from regimes in the Arab world where most regimes are closed, with one family (monarchy) or a few families chronically monopolising political power and dominating the country.
The number of people entering politics from the lower social levels is much larger in China than in many other countries, including democratic ones.
The rule of the CCP is not based on a political family.
It is a mass party with highly diversified interests.
A second feature of China’s party system is that political openness has facilitated the rapid alternation of political elites.
The nature of Western democracy is to realise peaceful alternation of political elites through periodical elections.
China has refused to follow the path of Western democracy and has developed a very efficient system of power succession.
The late Deng Xiaoping was successful in establishing two related systems – one is the exit system for aged leaders, that is, the retirement system; the other is the recruitment system to recruit talent from all levels of society.
Because of the age limit (that is, all leaders should retire from their positions once they reach the age of retirement), the speed of elite succession at all levels is incomparable to any other system, including democracy.
The system has produced two advantages.
First, it avoids personal dictatorship which prevailed from Mao Zedong to Deng.
One contributing factor is “intra-party democracy” or intra-party collective leadership system engendered by internal pluralism.
There are serious checks and balances in the highest leadership of the CCP.
The Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, the highest and most powerful decision-making body, is often regarded as the symbol of a highly centralised political system or authoritarianism.
However, its nine members have almost equal power, with each having his/her decision-making area and having the most important say in that area.
The term limit also matters.
Now, in general, leaders including the General Secretary of the CCP, the President of State, Premier and those holding other important positions are allowed to serve at most two terms in office, that is, 10 years.
This system is not hugely different from many Western presidential systems.
Obviously, the term limit is an effective institutional constraint on personal dictatorship.
That is to say, although China does not have a Western form of democracy, it has found a similar way to prevent personal dictatorship.
When a person or a family has dominated a country for several decades, the system is prone to malpractices and abuses, which are intolerable to the society.
These institutional features enable Chinese politics to refresh itself at an extremely fast pace and can thus effectively reflect generational changes and changes of interests.
Compared to many other political systems, the Chinese political system facilitates the rapid and massive renewal of public officials.
With the rigid enforcement of an age limit, thousands of officials leave their positions every year, with the same number of officials assuming these positions.
Although such rapid mobility has its own disadvantages, it undeniably reflects the changing times.
A third feature of China’s party system is its conduciveness to prompt policy changes.
In theory, the obstacle to policy change in multi-party systems should be smaller than that in one-party states, for policies can change with the alternation of ruling parties.
When a new party comes to power, it can discontinue policies initiated by the former ruling party.
However, this is often not the case.
In many democracies, opposition parties no longer serve their constructive roles; instead, they oppose merely for the sake of opposing.
Under such circumstances, substantial policy changes often become very difficult.
In China, this is not the case.
Although the Chinese society often complains that the ruling party is too slow in making policy changes, they are implemented on a more rapid basis than in other political systems.
From the 1980s to the 1990s and to this century, China has achieved several significant policy changes, such as the decision to open up the economy.
It is difficult to understand the huge changes in China in these decades without taking into account the ruling party’s immense ability to respond to situations with appropriate policy changes.
Intra-party democracy has so far enabled the CCP to remain open.
However, if intra-party democracy is inevitable, formal rules and norms which can regulate competition are crucial.
To eliminate the possibilities of hidden rules, competition rules would have to be explicit, fair and transparent.
Otherwise, when hidden rules dominate political competition, democracy will be jeopardised, destroying the unity of intra-party competition and weakening the ruling party, increasing the risk of political instability.
The Bo Xilai affair is a good example.
This case has seriously undermined the unity of the party leadership, particularly in the eyes of the population.
But whether or not the CCP will survive depends on how further intra-party democratisation will be introduced.
By ZHENG YONGNIAN (*)
(*) The writer is director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.
Source: TST 12/9/2012