"End of an Era" in China, with Carl Minzner

May 04, 2018

Detail from book cover.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Carl Minzner, a professor of law at Fordham Law School. He is author of a new book called End of an Era: How China's Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise.

Carl, great to see you today.

CARL MINZNER: Great. Thanks for having me here.

DEVIN STEWART: This is a perennial question, when and if China is going to crash, and whether it's defeating its own purpose. Is it setting itself up for some kind of failure?

It seems these days that the mainstream view is that China is a sort of outlier in the world and that it is presenting—I'm paraphrasing here—a state capitalist model where the state is heavily involved with the economy in terms of guiding industry, helping industry, and maintaining a high degree of social control and political control. Ten or 20 years ago that was thought to be heretical, and now it has become appealing.

How would you say your book's position differs from the mainstream view?

CARL MINZNER: That's an excellent question. The book is titled, as you noted, End of an Era, and the underlying argument is that China's reform era, which is the last three or four decades that we know it, is coming to an end.

If you think about the reform era, if you think about what has characterized the China that we know today, which is a post-1978 China, it is characterized by three things: economically, rapid economic growth; ideologically, a certain degree of openness to the outside world; and politically, relative political stability which has been marked by a certain degree of partial political institutionalizations.

All three of those things are very different from the era that preceded it, the Maoist era, when China's economy was relatively stagnant, it was ideologically closed, and politics was extremely unstable. My fundamental argument is that the last three to four decades that we've known as the reform era is ending, and China is now poised for encountering a range of new problems that it hasn't seen for some time.

DEVIN STEWART: So, 1978, Deng Xiaoping, the opening up of China: Reform is central to guiding policy making. From 1978 to the present, what has been accomplished in China?

CARL MINZNER: All of the phenomenal changes, all the phenomenal successes that China has encountered, the fundamental foundation, I think one of the key things is that political stability. The rules of the game in China became somewhat clearer. It wasn't liberalization, but the rules of the one-party political game in China became somewhat clearer. You weren't having the purges day-in and day-out; you weren't having the leadership instability that characterized the Maoist era.

You also had this ideological openness to the outside that created that flexibility for the importation of certain elements of market capitalism and the like. That was crucial toward the economic success that China has enjoyed over the last three decades.

That is not an inconsiderable achievement when you think about the stability, the growth, and the openness that China had engaged in that last three or four decades, even though it was still an authoritarian system. But it was different from what had taken place before. All the skyscrapers, all the growth, all the openness on campuses to the outside world, that is all part of that crucial decision that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

DEVIN STEWART: What is taking the place of the reform era?

CARL MINZNER: That's the $64 billion question. That's exactly right. Part of the argument is, why is this era ending?

There are different reasons. Some are secular shifts. Economically, China's remarkable boom over the last three decades was going to slow down one way or the other. In some ways it is similar to Taiwan, similar to Japan. People out there are going to debate whether China is going to face a gradual slowing down or something more sudden. I'm somewhat of an agnostic on that.

I think one way or the other the important thing to recognize is just that that boom period is beginning to slow down. Partially it's demographic; partially it's secular. I do think there are some other elements behind it, and we can talk about that if you want as well. But one way or another, that is coming to an end.

On the ideological and political fronts, what's taking place there is the system is closing up. Ideologically it's closing up.

The flexibility that characterized the reform era, where there was an openness to reaching out in some form to outside norms, outside models, where what was foreign wasn't regarded as tainted, that was an element of the reform era that permitted foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to come in and work. It permitted Chinese scholars a degree of flexibility to work with foreign institutions without being regarded as somehow tainted.

As China pivots toward a more closed model, that space is declining. Some of those fears about outside influences becoming politically suspect are starting to come back. What worries me is that is where that space for inquiry starts to shut down.

Politically what's happening is you're starting to see those norms—what was once collective rule begins to revert back toward a single-man system, that fears about purges and people being taken down for different reasons, the space that was once available, party organs are beginning to reabsorb government ones.

I'm not making an argument that Maoism is coming back; we're very far away from that. But the crucial thing to recognize is just what we had known as characterizing the reform era is going away, and China is shifting into a more personalized authoritarian regime and one which is more closed with respect to outside influence.

For me, I think when you see those things happening it makes you worried about what's the next norm that starts to break. What is the next thing that is going to start to fall, and could you start to see some of the instability that characterized China's pre-1978 era beginning to come back?

DEVIN STEWART: You talk about various types of reform being rolled back. I think you even mentioned Jerome Cohen in your book. What are some of the legal, economic, and political reforms that you've seen rolled back, specifics?

CARL MINZNER: Let's start specifically on the political side. I think the political element is crucial to understand. A system is undergirded by its politics and the political framework that was established.

What made China stable in the post-1978 era was that you moved away from the Maoist concentration of power in a single individual; you had retirement and succession norms of top leaders becoming somewhat more predictable rather than just relying on whatever Mao's whim happened to be; you saw a move away from street movements and campaigns; you moved away from leadership for life with an individual; and you moved toward something resembling more regular succession of leaders.

Most of those things have begun to come undone. The last five years has seen a heavy concentration of power, which was once dispersed among a range of top leaders—Politburo Standing Committee members used to function more as an oligarchy. What's happened over the last five years is that power has been reconcentrated in a single individual, Xi Jinping, not to say that nobody else is important, but he has very adeptly gotten control over the levers of power, partially by breaking some of those other norms.

There used to be a norm that other Politburo Standing Committee members were more or less immune from accusations of corruption. Within the last five years, you've seen the former security tsar, Zhou Yongkang, get sentenced to life. You've seen other top members of the politburo be felled one after one.

That is a very clear signal from Xi Jinping. Those earlier norms where there was a collective leadership and they were all relatively equal among themselves have been done away with.

Similarly, you're now starting to see a whiff of a cult of personality begin to gather around Xi Jinping. Deng Xiaoping and his successors really didn't have anything like that. Now you're starting to see the media focus in on the top leader in a way that we haven't seen before.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you as alarmed as a lot of people in the media about the implications of one-man rule for China?

CARL MINZNER: Absolutely. I think there is a range of different problems. Again, some of these things will take time to play out.

I think particularly in a system like China one of the first things that you're going to see is this fear that develops within the bureaucracy among others as they become increasingly—first, you're unwilling to challenge the top leader. You also become unwilling to reflect back negative information. When the top person takes a particular stance, it creates this real incentive for the people below him to immediately nod and say yes. So you start to have a shutdown in the discourse.

China is a one-party system, but at least during the reform era you had somewhat more space that was available for people to talk about whether this was a good or a bad policy. You lacked that in the Maoist era, and that's why you saw some of the big errors, real serious problems, that took place because nobody was willing to stand up and say, "This is a dumb idea," to Mao.

DEVIN STEWART: This is called the "Jar Jar Binks Principle," which is Jake Tapper's idea that you need someone around you to tell you you have a bad idea, like Jar Jar Binks, and it's May 4th, so I thought I would just throw that in.

CARL MINZNER: If you don't have that, exactly. I worry that that is one of the first things that starts to go. Of course, then it can start to lead to the next iteration of problems, where you begin to then see people further down in the system trying to mobilize individuals around praising you and so forth, and that can just lead to this general erosion of the system over time. I actually think if you look at some of the developments that are taking place right now, that is exactly what you're starting to see in China.

DEVIN STEWART: What about instruments to further social control?

CARL MINZNER: Again, one of the distinguishing elements of the reform era was that compared to the Maoist era the Party backed out of people's lives to a certain extent. Still a one-party system; they weren't interested in having any organized political challenges to their rule.

Nonetheless, you had a somewhat greater degree of space in your private life and even a little bit beyond that. Even in civil society there was some opportunity to do things that you weren't able to do before.

As this new strengthened authoritarianism is starting to come back, that space is degrading. You're losing the space for civil society organizations. The controls have come back on.

Religion: There has been definitely much more control, particularly over groups that are regarded as potentially having more connections to the outside world. Islam, out in Xinjiang, very tight controls on religion and on expressions of ethnicity. Increasingly, they're starting to see things blow up with respect to the Christian community as well.

The private space, if you're looking at the development of the social credit system, the Party is beginning to try to experiment with how they could get—this partially commercialized system after 1978 meant that some of the levers of control that once existed got degraded. No longer did you have assigned housing; no longer did you have ration coupons. The post-reform era had seen some of the Party's controls over society start to weaken.

I see in the social credit system an effort to address a range of things but potentially to get their hooks back into the population at large in a way that it hasn't over the last four decades.

DEVIN STEWART: How about Chinese state media and propaganda use? That has been identified quite a bit in the media recently.

CARL MINZNER: Absolutely. Certainly that partially commercialized media, if you ask me for the timing of this, if you look back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, I think that was the heyday when you saw partially commercialized media, publications such as Nánfāng Zhōumò (Southern Weekend) start to emerge. It is basically yellow journalism where you seek out and try to report on problems in society. Some very good reports at that period.

But starting, I would date around 2003, you started to see the Party becoming increasingly concerned. That is when the hooks began to come in. You've seen similar bursts with social media—Weibo—particularly around 2010, begin to become this mobilizing forum by which people were exposing a range of local government abuses. After that point, controls start to crack down.

Note that this isn't just a post-2012 Xi Jinping story; this is something that goes back for about ten to 15 years, where the Party has become increasingly concerned about a range of developments in society and is moving to assert control. Media, of course, was something that happened a little bit earlier, and that is exactly the trend we have seen over a decade; the space has been significantly reduced in all of these areas.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about what's at stake here. What are the risks?

You've mentioned the rollback of reforms, the tightening of the social space, tighter social controls, and the use of propaganda. I think a lot of Western ears might think, Uh-oh, this might be like a pressure cooker, and if you just clamp down more on the pressure cooker, then it's going to make things worse. Is that the type of thing that you're worried about, or are the Chinese authorities wisely doing what they should be doing?

CARL MINZNER: That's a very good question. Certainly, at the moment Beijing has lots of resources. It has money; it has men; it has censors; it has police control.

I don't think there is any immediate danger to the Party's control. But when you say "pressure cooker," I think that's a very good analogy. Despite all the superficial stability, I think one of the big costs of what's taking place right now is that the Party is not allowing the growth of anything outside of its own walls.

All of these experiments that had taken place that I talk about in the book over the last 15 or 20 years—Chinese authorities were working on village elections; they were working with public interest, law reforms; they were working with a range of intraparty democracy. There was a range of developments that had taken place over the last 15 or 20 years where you could have imagined that over time this might build toward some other institutions that would help channel people's demands for participation in the system and might provide alternative institutions to check abuses of local authorities. All of those things have been steadily snuffed out.

When I look toward the future, what I really see is this risk that because there is nothing else out there, when the problems that I'm talking about in the book—when the social and economic problems begin to boil, when some of the serious latent problems that China faces in terms of workers' demands for back pay and elderly pensioners' demands for their back pensions—when these begin to mount, there are not going to be any other channels out there to resolve, and that's where I really worry that patterns of instability that we had been accustomed to in the pre-1978 period could start to come back in very serious ways.

DEVIN STEWART: I think you pointed to rising social protests. Are we seeing that potential for instability already happening?

CARL MINZNER: Yes. There has been a range of areas where these things regularly blow up, whether it's land seizures or worker back pay issues. Right now one of the things you're seeing is migrants who have been long-term migrant residents in urban areas essentially getting pushed out of major cities like Beijing or Shanghai because of the central government's fears about potential unrest, leading to pressing workers to leave the urban areas.

Again, at the moment lots of tight controls doesn't mean that this immediately blows up, but you are seeing individualized protests. The state at the moment has the money to pay people off; it has the money to hire people to suppress protests.

But you really start to worry: What happens when some of those conditions aren't as true anymore? Where does that pressure begin to go? That is where I worry, and there has been a rise in these types of protests over the recent decades.

DEVIN STEWART: If the pressures don't find a way to be released, what is the worst-case scenario? Play it out.

CARL MINZNER: I do see two big risks: one is how this plays internally within the Chinese system itself. Chinese leaders themselves aren't stupid. Chinese leaders themselves see these problems.

I've partially been wondering, at some point when these social conflicts begin to escalate does somebody within the Chinese system, somebody at the top, start to take China's own rhetoric of revolution, of Marxism, seriously and begin to pivot against some of the established urban elites in a way that we haven't seen for a long time?

Certainly that idea that you could see schisms within society get widened and a particular leader deciding to throw your elites overboard, that has resonance in Turkey; it has resonance in the United States.

The question is: Could you see something like that in China where there was a Maoist era of Cultural Revolution? Mao himself called on the discontented in society to go after his enemies, people he regarded as problematic within the Party, established elites. Could we something like that play out where a leader in China decides to try to mobilize some of the discontent in society and turn it against the Party itself, turn it against the winners of the last 30 years?

Could that happen? That's one thing. That would be a recipe for internal conflict escalating within the system itself.

The other possibility is that some of these pressures at some point begin to create unsustainable demands, and you see real cracks emerging, and the Party loses control.

Again, I don't think either of these are in the short term possible. In the short term, what you have is an increasingly personalized, increasingly hardline authoritarian regime, but I think to think that is somehow a long-term, stable—that's just going to be the way that China is run indefinitely—I think that is not true.

DEVIN STEWART: You're saying the current status quo is not sustainable.

CARL MINZNER: Not sustainable, right.

DEVIN STEWART: I feel like I'm sympathetic to that, but you're going to get the kind of person who is going to say: "Carl, you know, people have been saying China is going to have some kind of crisis, people have been saying that for years, and so far they've been able to avoid a crisis." How do you defend that?

CARL MINZNER: The amusing thing, when people say that, what they're saying is: "Well, China's never had a crisis in the last 40 years."

I'm like, "What about the last 400 years?"

I really think you actually have to step back and think what is your frame of reference when you're thinking about things. You have to think, Why hasn't it had a crisis in the last 40 years?

I think one of the answers to why it hasn't is those three factors that I just mentioned with regard to the reform era: partial political institutionalization, rapid economic growth, and a certain degree of ideological openness that permitted—those factors are all ending.

If you start thinking about the idea—which I think is not crazy—that China is moving back toward a more personalized, authoritarian regime, China has a long history of that; it is called the "dynastic cycle of how systems operate," and then you actually start not comparing it to other countries but just comparing it to its own past, you have to start to think, What happens to that type of system in the long run?

You think back to history. You start thinking, Yes, well, there are certain times, early Qing Dynasty, early Ming—early in the dynasties you get the charismatic figure who can exert control. But problems begin to emerge, and then things start to crack.

When you start thinking about that, the argument that, "Well, China hasn't had a problem in the last 40 years," to me that actually just seems to be a little bit silly. You have to put it in a much longer narrative arc.

DEVIN STEWART: A myopic way of looking at it maybe.

CARL MINZNER: Yes, exactly.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. Thank you, Carl.

One last question before we go here. It sounds like this is a global trend. If you could give your view on the return of, as you put in the title of your book, China's Authoritarian Revival, it sounds like the world's "authoritarian revival."

CARL MINZNER: There is an element of truth to that. Again, this book—I am very much a China specialist, but I like to mention in some of my talks that this is a story of political erosion. In China what you're dealing with is a story of political erosion that is directed from the top, where Xi Jinping and others around him have started to break or crack the political norms that have been established over the last 40 years.

But you could tell that same story of political erosion in a range of Western democracies and in the United States itself. Of course, in those countries what you're dealing with is bottom-up populist movements that are eroding democratic political norms, so there is a difference between those two situations.

If you're like me and you're worried about trends that you see in the United States and you're willing to say, "This is what political erosion looks like in a democratic system and what could happen," I think you have to ask yourself the question: What happens in a society where the norms or the entire political infrastructure is of much more recent vintage and that a history of severe political turbulence, such as the Cultural Revolution, is much more recent in time? What happens in a society like that when you begin to see these norms eroding?

I think there are some interesting questions about whether there are factors which are contributing to these things across different countries. Is there some element of globalism which has taken place over the last 40 or 50 years that has fueled some of these trends, perhaps in a range of different—I'm still thinking through that.

But I do think that story about political erosion taking place in different countries is going to be a narrative that you're going to hear more of going forward.

DEVIN STEWART: Carl Minzner is author of End of an Era: How China's Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise. Thank you very much, Carl.

CARL MINZNER: Thank you.

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