China's Communist Party more focused on power than growth

Some veteran China watchers are saying this is the beginning of the end for the Communist Party, citing factors such as an anti-corruption campaign led by President Xi Jinping, which they claim shows the party is divided or even tearing itself apart. They point to signs that growing numbers of rich officials and citizens want to leave China and take their millions with them. On top of that, there is continued repression of political dissidents and those who refuse to toe the party line in the arts, media and academia, indicating a restless populace. And there are officials who clearly show little conviction or enthusiasm for party doctrine even as they implement policies designed to revitalise the party's ideological appeal.

Such problems have long existed in China. So why would now be the beginning of the end? It comes down to growing pessimism about the country's economic future. As Premier Li Keqiang admitted to delegates at the 12th National People's Congress in his notably candid annual "work report" on March 15, meeting the revised target of 7 per cent annual economic growth will be difficult.

Even if the premier is correct that China can still contain systemic risks to its economy, there is now a broad consensus that the country's best economic days are behind it. The problem, according to a growing band of skeptics, including China expert and Washington insider David Shambaugh, is that the party's legitimacy and ability to stay in power depends above all on rapid economic growth. Achieving it will serve to paper over cracks in the country, while failure to do so will cause these fissures to widen.

Demise greatly exaggerated

This is the primary reason why those who once lauded the staying power of the party -- or resisted predicting its demise out of professional caution -- are now changing their minds. But contrary to the (new) conventional wisdom, the party's longevity owes to more than just a rapidly growing economy. The Chinese Communist Party has now been in power longer than any in the world. It has learned the lessons of recent history -- its own and those of other authoritarian regimes -- and is far more cunning than most of its foreign detractors give it credit for. It is not so much meeting GDP growth targets that matters as which people are benefiting from the party's continued rule, even as the economy slows. In this respect, the party still appears well-positioned to hold on.

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