China: Totalitarianism’s Long Shadow

Issue Date April 2021
Volume 32
Issue 2
Page Numbers 5–21
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Rapid economic growth in China over the last four decades has failed to bring about democratization. Instead of undergoing evolutionary liberalization, the Leninist party-state has in recent years reverted to a form of neo-Stalinist rule. China’s experience may appear to contradict modernization theory, which links economic development with democracy. A closer look at this experience, however, shows that democratizing a post-totalitarian regime is far more difficult than democratizing an authoritarian regime because post-totalitarian regimes, such as the one dominated by the Chinese Communist Party, possess far greater capacity and resources to resist and neutralize the liberalizing effects of modernization. However, the medium-term success of these regimes may only ensure their eventual demise through revolution. The socioeconomic transformation of societies under post-totalitarian rule empowers social forces and greatly increase the odds of revolutionary change when these regimes undergo liberalization, as shown in the former Soviet bloc.


Seymour Martin Lipset’s insight that economic modernization creates favorable conditions for stable democracy is one of the most influential, robust, and time-tested theories in social science. More than six decades after “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”1 first appeared in print, Lipset’s work continues to frame scholarly debates and inspire new research. As with any established theory in social science, Lipset’s thesis has also been constantly tested against real-world experience. Today, the case of China, where one-party rule has persisted despite four decades of rapid economic modernization, challenges the validity of the Lipset thesis. In 2007, China’s economic miracle occasioned a forecast that the country could become partly democratic by 2015 and completely free a decade later.2 Unfortunately, the regime dominated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not merely endured, but grown more repressive at home and aggressive abroad.

The China puzzle—a relatively high level of socioeconomic development coexisting with a persistent dictatorship—is even more striking in the contemporary global context. Consider Table 1 below. According to World Bank data and the Freedom House ratings, most countries with a higher per capita income than China are either Free (liberal democracies) or Partly Free (either semi-democracies or semi-authoritarian regimes). Nearly all the dictatorships that are richer (per capita) than China today are major oil and gas producers. This indicates that there are in China powerful forces—at least equal in political potency to the “resource curse”—that prevent otherwise favorable socioeconomic factors from promoting a shift toward a more democratic system.3 [End Page 5]

About the Author

Minxin Pei is Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. In January 2021, he joined the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy. His essay “China: From Tiananmen to Neo-Stalinism” appeared in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

View all work by Minxin Pei

An even more worrying aspect of the China puzzle is that since Xi Jinping became paramount leader in 2012, the CCP has reverted to a neo-Stalinist path. Xi has revived one-man rule, escalated political repression to its worst level since Mao Zedong died in 1976, reintroduced ideological indoctrination, and launched an aggressive foreign policy that openly challenges the theory and practice of a liberal, rules-governed international order.4

The Chinese experience since the Mao era forces us to rethink the relationship between economic development and democracy in a post-totalitarian regime. In this intellectual exploration, modernization theory remains relevant and useful because it helps us to ask the right question: What institutional factors unique to the country may have hindered the emergence of democratic institutions despite rapid, sustained economic modernization?

Seymour Martin Lipset was well aware that even when socioeconomic circumstances were favorable, political factors could still mean trouble for democratization. He warned that “unique events may account for either the persistence or the failure of democracy in any particular society.”5 One such event he mentioned was the appearance of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Due to these regimes’ Marxist ideology and ties with the Soviet Union, Lipset warned that “the presence of Communists precludes an easy prediction that economic development will stabilize democracy in these European countries.”6

Looking back from the vantage of 1993 at his seminal 1959 essay on “the social requisites of democracy,” Lipset referred indirectly to the link between regime type and democratization:

The more resources of power, status and wealth are concentrated in the state, the harder it is to institutionalize democracy. Under such conditions the political struggle tends to approach a zero-sum game in which the defeated lose all. The greater the importance of the central state as a source of prestige and advantage, the less likely it is that those in power—or the forces of opposition—will accept rules of the game that institutionalize party conflict and could result in the turnover of those in office. Hence. … [t]he chances for democracy are greatest where … the interaction between politics and economy is limited and segmented.7

Although Lipset did not say that every regime with a high concentration of power, status, and wealth is totalitarian, such regimes do inevitably feature that concentration, and so do the post-totalitarian orders that succeed them. The recent history of the old Soviet-bloc countries backs up Lipset’s observation about the negative relationship between the concentration of power in a state and its ability to gain and keep democracy.

A key point to grasp is that the task of democratizing communist dictatorships is fraught with unique challenges. Totalitarianism casts a long, dark shadow and limits possible paths to democratization. In retrospect, [End Page 6]

The Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World

Minxin Pei delivered the seventeenth annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World on 3 December 2020. The title of his lecture was “Totalitarianism’s Long Dark Shadow Over China.”

Seymour Martin Lipset (1922–2006) was one of the most influential social scientists and scholars of democracy of the past six decades. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Democracy and a founding member of its Editorial Board, Lipset taught at Columbia, the University of California–Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, and George Mason University. He was the author of numerous important books, including Political Man, The First New Nation, The Politics of Unreason, and American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. He was the only person ever to have served as president of both the American Political Science Association (1979–80) and the American Sociological Association (1992–93).

Lipset’s work covered a wide range of topics: the social conditions of democracy, including economic development and political culture; the origins of socialism, fascism, revolution, protest, prejudice, and extremism; class conflict, structure, and mobility; social cleavages, party systems, and voter alignments; and public opinion and public confidence in institutions. Lipset was a pioneer in the study of comparative politics, and no comparison featured as prominently in his work as that between the two great democracies of North America. Thanks to his insightful analysis of Canada in comparison with the United States, most fully elaborated in Continental Divide (1990), he has been dubbed the “Tocqueville of Canada.”

The Lipset Lecture is cosponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Munk School, and the Embassy of Canada in Washington, with financial support this year from Johns Hopkins University Press, the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and the Embassy of Canada. To view videos of the Lipset Lecture from this and past years, please visit

the most promising path to democracy for communist dictatorships is revolution. Although transition costs will be high and long-term prospects for democratic consolidation far from certain, the spectacles of reversion to authoritarianism in Russia and recent episodes of democratic backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe suggest the value of suddenly destroying totalitarian institutions as fully as possible. To burn totalitarianism to the ground is to accomplish the first vital step toward democratization. Communist dictatorships that go for economic reform [End Page 7]

without political democratization, like those in China and Vietnam, may achieve swift socioeconomic progress. But the legacy institutions of totalitarianism will allow the democratizing effects of development to be blunted and perhaps even neutralized altogether.

A Leninist party, with its insistence that it must rule alone and free of competition, is the heart of the problem. Such a party will maintain a large and able coercive apparatus, an effective even if not quite exclusive sway over information, and control of crucial economic sectors. Development may create democratizing pressures, but the regime will have ways, means, and motives to defy, baffle, sidestep, and delay them. A transition away from communism along this path is also likely to get stuck because entrenched interests, above all the privileged apparatchiks of the Leninist party-state, will use the legacy institutions of totalitarianism to block economic reforms (beyond a certain point) and prevent democratization lest it cost them their power and privileges.

Even worse than a stagnating transition is one that turns into a back-slide toward neo-Stalinism, which is centered on the personality cult of a dominant ruler, constant purges within the regime, intense repression, reassertion of the supremacy of the Leninist party-state, and ideological hostility to the West. As China’s experience under Xi shows, the lack of democratic reform and the absence of the rule of law mean that the institutional mechanisms which could forestall the rise of a strongman are missing. Thus the way is open for a leader such as Xi Jinping to impose his will on society and the party-state through fear and ideological reindoctrination.

Among all modern dictatorships, communist totalitarian regimes have cast the longest and darkest shadow on the future. One reason is their greater longevity relative to other types of dictatorships. While fascist totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy were also horribly brutal and repressive, their comparatively quick demise in a global war prevented them from totally transforming [End Page 8] their societies and consolidating totalitarian institutions. By contrast, in communist regimes that rose from internal social revolutions (rather than being imposed from without on a country), classic totalitarian rule lasted decades. In the USSR, the totalitarian era stretched from 1917 to 1953, the year Josef Stalin died. In China, the equivalent period was almost thirty years, from 1949 to the beginning of economic reform in 1978. Even in the post-totalitarian period, as terror declined, communist ideology eroded, and one-man rule ended, communist regimes in the USSR, Central and Eastern Europe, China, and Vietnam continued to rely on such core totalitarian institutions as the Leninist party-state, the state-run economy, censors, and secret police to maintain power.

Even when socioeconomic modernization comes to such countries, the legacies of totalitarianism make democratization much harder. In their unmatched brutality, communist totalitarian regimes systematically destroyed alternative centers of power and social capital.8 In China, Maoist campaigns had since the 1950s decimated religious groups, secret societies, rural elites, the urban middle classes, and the intelligentsia.9 A well-organized Leninist party-state with mass economic resources, a skilled and ruthless repressive apparat, and a wrecked civil society—all ubiquitous legacies of totalitarianism—stunt the prospects of democratization in post-totalitarian regimes.

The difficulty of democratization in totalitarian and post-totalitarian regimes has not escaped notice. Jeane Kirkpatrick pointed out in 1979 that, unlike conventional dictatorships, no communist regime had ever been democratized. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan argued that, barring defeat in war and external imposition, a transition from totalitarian rule to democracy is all but impossible. Once outright totalitarianism ends, the opening for democracy remains narrow because civil society is weak, “political society” (that is, opposition parties) is nonexistent, the private sector is anemic, and the rule of law is nowhere to be found.10

The difficulty of democratizing post-totalitarian communist regimes can be highlighted by comparing them to middle-income dictatorships that are not communist. While instances are few (and would be even fewer were one to count only communist regimes springing from endogenous revolution rather than Soviet imposition), they do suggest that transitions to democracy tend to occur in middle-income noncommunist autocracies at a lower level of socioeconomic development than historically has been the case in communist autocracies. As Table 2 shows, the average per capita income at time of transition for communist dictatorships in the former Soviet bloc was 25 percent higher than that same [End Page 9]

average across a select group of middle-income noncommunist autocracies in Latin America and Asia. If we look only at endogenously created communist cases (Russia, Serbia, Albania, and Croatia), their average per capita income at the time of transition was still slightly higher than the average for noncommunist dictatorships.

The disparity in years of schooling (for adults over 25) at time of [End Page 10] transition is even more pronounced. This figure averaged six for non-communist autocracies but 9.2 (or 46 percent higher) for communist dictatorships. The four endogenous communist regimes came in at an average of 8.9 years. Of the three existing communist dictatorships—China, Vietnam, and Cuba—all have an average adult-education level that exceeds six years of schooling, while two (China and Cuba) have significantly higher levels of per capita income than the noncommunist dictatorships could boast at the time of transition. What this simple comparison suggests is that communist dictatorships are more resistant than conventional authoritarian regimes to pressures for democratization arising from socioeconomic modernization.

Moreover, “managed” transitions—the kind based on talks between rulers and opposition—are rare in communist cases. Only in Poland and Hungary did communist dictatorships engage in such negotiations, and even then the dealmaking failed to turn the basic trajectory of regime change from “revolutionary” to “pacted.” In all other communist cases, most importantly that of the USSR, the transition began as reformist but ended as revolutionary.

While we do not yet fully understand how that happened, a tantalizing possibility is that regimes (such as communist dictatorships) which are at first more resistant to democratization by that same token become more vulnerable to revolution. When the ruling elites are forced to liberalize the political system as a response to sinking legitimacy, pent-up social forces that have been both radicalized by the old regime’s resistance to democratization and empowered by high levels of socioeconomic development can turn limited reform into revolution.

In other words, communist autocrats may be better than their non-communist counterparts at resisting and delaying democratization, but eventually such tactics prove not only unsustainable but self-destructive as well, since they make revolution more likely. This hypothesis, which the experience of transition in the former communist regimes appears to validate, complements the Lipset thesis.

Solving the China Puzzle

The experience of democratization in the former Soviet bloc suggests that a decisive democratic breakthrough can come about only when the legacy institutions of totalitarianism, in particular the Leninist party-state and state socialism, are dismantled quickly in a “Big Bang” revolution. But revolution has its own short-term costs, and the emergence and consolidation of democracy on the ruins of communism are by no means guaranteed. The most discouraging case may be that of Russia. Communism’s end ushered in a decade of economic decline, failing governance, and unstable democracy, paving the way for the rise of a new autocrat, Vladimir Putin. [End Page 11]

The high costs of revolution have maintained the appeal of China’s evolutionary pathway of market-oriented reforms and rapid economic development, at least until recently. Optimists assumed that market-oriented reforms would shift economic resources away from the state to society and initiate a virtuous cycle in which state power would become less concentrated, the economy would grow, and society would achieve more autonomy. These assumptions were not entirely wrong. In the 1980s, when reformers such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang held significant sway, China experienced not only its economic-reform breakthrough but also substantive steps toward political liberalization. Without the changes of that decade, the Tiananmen prodemocracy movement which appeared at its close could never have happened.11

When the June 1989 crackdown crushed that movement, CCP reformers were purged and the regime rallied behind Deng Xiaoping’s project of rapid modernization under one-party rule. As Linz and Stepan wrote, the post-Tiananmen regime was a form of “frozen post-totalitarianism in which, despite the persistent tolerance of some civil society critics of the regime, almost all the other control mechanisms of the party-state stay[ed] in place for a long period and [did] not evolve.”12

Despite its “frozen post-totalitarian” political institutions, the post-Tiananmen regime has done more than any communist government in history to achieve rapid and sustained growth through market-based reforms. According to the World Bank’s constant-dollar measurements, the Chinese economy went from $360 billion in 1990 to $14.3 trillion in 2019, a fortyfold increase in real terms. China’s per capita income and average educational attainment, as shown in Table 2, are now significantly higher than the average of noncommunist dictatorships at the time of transition. Compared to the average former communist regime at the time of transition, China today has a substantially higher per capita income and a modestly lower level of educational attainment.

To understand the China puzzle of rapid development combined with persistent autocracy, we must focus on how the legacies of totalitarianism critically constrained the democratizing potential of rapid modernization, both during the entire post-Mao period and during the 32 years since the Tiananmen crackdown. Here I offer three propositions:

1) Legacies of totalitarianism blunt and neutralize the democratizing effects of economic modernization. At the outset of China’s transition from Maoist-totalitarian rule in 1979–80, the CCP leadership under Deng Xiaoping made a strategic choice to use economic reform as the means of saving the one-party regime that Mao’s catastrophic rule had devastated. As Deng made plain in 1979, the goal of reform was not to end or change exclusive CCP rule, but to maintain it.13 Hence the deliberate and painstaking preservation of such key totalitarian institutions as the Leninist party-state, the repressive apparatus, state control [End Page 12] of the economy’s “commanding heights,” and information restraints. In economic reform, private-sector growth, and global economic integration, post-Mao China has made strides that the post-Stalin regimes of the old Soviet bloc could never have imagined. Yet the choice to keep the legacy institutions of totalitarianism has blunted the liberalizing and democratizing effects of economic modernization.

As Andrew Nathan explained in his 2015 Lipset Lecture, rapid growth may have created a new middle class in China, but this middle class is less autonomous and more state-dependent than middle classes elsewhere.14 The reason is evident: Too much of it still works for the state. According to the Chinese government’s online China Statistical Yearbook 2020, as of 2019, fully state-owned entities employed more than 54 million people.15 They included vast numbers of China’s professionals, managers, and skilled workers.

Since the Tiananmen massacre, moreover, strict limits on civil society have stunted the growth of autonomous social organizations that might otherwise be a force for democratization. Independent religious groups, free trade unions, student organizations, and professional associations are banned. Most of China’s so-called civil society groups are in fact, to use Orwellian doublespeak, “government-organized nongovernmental organizations.” They are under effective state control. Only a few private groups are allowed to engage in small-scale activities in nonsensitive sectors such as rural education and environmental protection.16

With its control over the state and its vast resources, plus the power to determine who gets choice educational and job opportunities, the CCP since Tiananmen has been able to coopt generations of students, professionals, and private entrepreneurs. From 1991 to 2019, the Party’s membership grew from 50 to 92 million, or from 4.3 to 6.7 percent of the populace. Recruiting in student and business ranks has led to slightly more than half of all members holding a college degree. About 11 percent of CCP members are “managers and executives,” while another 16 percent are “skilled professionals.”17

With rapid growth filling state coffers, the CCP has been able to pay for enhanced repressive capacity, expanded surveillance, and efforts to limit the political effects of progress in areas such as information technology. Between 2002 and 2018, according to the China Statistical Yearbook, spending on domestic security rose about eightfold in real terms. No expense was spared to build the Great Firewall, censor news and information, and prevent antiregime collective action.18 Over the last decade, the regime has added yet more resources, spending to build a technologically advanced surveillance state that uses artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and big-data analytics to predict and punish anyone who challenges or criticizes the regime.

Due to security-forces modernization since 1989, China’s post-totalitarian regime now wields as much repressive capacity as a classic totalitarian [End Page 13] regime, if not more. As far back as 1999, when the CCP cracked down on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, the regime showed that it could dismantle a nationwide organization with more than a hundred-million followers through mass surveillance, arrests, imprisonment, torture, and political indoctrination.19 At the moment, Chinese authorities have incarcerated at least a million Muslims in mass-detention facilities that are euphemistically called “vocational training schools,” but which are for all intents and purposes concentration camps recalling the worst human-rights abuses of the last century.20

2) If the interests entrenched in the Leninist party-state remain in place, economic reform will lose momentum and the CCP regime will grow even more resistant to democratization and hostile to democratic values. A transition away from communism led by economic reform under the rule of a one-party state is highly likely to get stuck. Entrenched interests whose fortunes are intertwined with the Leninist party-state can use totalitarian legacy institutions to defend their privileges against any reform—economic or political—that threatens them. Indeed, the evolution of the post-Tiananmen regime under Jiang Zemin (1989–2002) and Hu Jintao (2002–12) bears out this observation. Economic reforms that began promisingly in the 1990s petered out in the 2000s, while the CCP blocked even the most modest experimental efforts to promote grass-roots democracy and the rule of law.21

By the time Hu became leader, market-oriented economic reform had already begun to stagnate. With Xi in power, it has gone into reverse despite his vow to accelerate it.22 A form of state capitalism is now ascendant. We can read the story in data regarding the share of total output produced by state-owned enterprises (SOEs). All through the 1980s, as the private sector expanded, SOEs’ total output share declined by an average of 2.5 percentage points each year. From 1992 through 2017, however, the average annual decline was only 1.3 points.23 Thus as of 2017, after four decades of reform, Chinese SOEs still accounted for about a quarter of GDP and employed about 16 percent of all workers.24

The overall growth of China’s economy has made SOEs bigger than ever in absolute terms. In 1992, they contributed about US$175 billion, while in 2017 their output was estimated at $3 trillion (or in real terms, it was about 3.6 times larger).25 The retention of SOEs has been no accident. As Xi himself told the CCP Central Committee in October 2020, “state-owned enterprises are an important material and political foundation for socialism with Chinese characteristics, and are an important pillar and force for the party to govern and rejuvenate the country. They must be stronger, better, and larger.”26 In particular, the CCP sees to it that SOEs remain atop the “commanding heights” of the economy in sectors such as finance, energy, and telecommunications. Despite their dismal inefficiency, these enterprises are showered with privileges, receiving [End Page 14] for instance about 83 percent of the bank credit that flowed to nonfinancial firms in 2016 while producing only a quarter of GDP.27

Just as economic reform has stalled, political reform has been meeting with stronger resistance. Anything—even the most limited democratic experiment—that seems as if it could genuinely empower Chinese society looks to the ruling elites like a threat to their power and privileges. Village elections, once touted as a step toward grassroots democracy, gradually degenerated into uncompetitive political rituals manipulated by local CCP officials. Modest legal reforms, meanwhile, had already died a quiet death even before Xi came to power as the Party reasserted its control over the legal system. This effort was then augmented by an all-out CCP propaganda campaign against liberal-democratic values.28

3) Lack of political reform, including democratization, greatly raises the risks of reversion to neo-Stalinist rule. It is more than a little ironic that the CCP, having been brutalized by a totalitarian leader (Mao), has become a victim of its own success in thwarting political reforms: The lack of such reforms made it possible for Xi to institute neo-Stalinist rule in short order. Had power been less concentrated and harder to abuse, he would not have had such a smooth path to neutralizing all his rivals and consolidating it. Yet the Party resisted anything even hinting at democracy throughout the post-Mao era. Now that resistance has boomeranged, and the Party once again finds itself caught in the grip of a single arbitrary ruler.

Until Xi’s rise, the reforms that Deng Xiaoping and his fellow survivors of Maoist-totalitarian rule put in place seemed to many to have institutionalized elite politics and addressed such well-known flaws of totalitarianism as the uncertainties of succession, the insecurity of being near the top of the hierarchy, and the gathering of a dangerous amount of power into the hands of a single leader. Indeed, the effort that Deng and his colleagues made in the 1980s to establish rules of collective leadership, term limits, and elite security had been a serious one.

Deng’s attempt to preclude the rise of another dominant, Mao-like figure suffered from several weaknesses, however, and any one of them had the potential to prove fatal. The rules regarding top leaders’ age and maximum time in office were either vague or unenforceable. There was no formal limit regarding age or length of tenure for members of the CCP Politburo, or for the CCP general secretary or the chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Deng himself had a taste for working outside formal rules. He never bothered with having himself named president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or CCP general secretary. In 1987, he stepped down as chairman of the CCP Central Advisory Commission (a post that he had created for himself in 1982), yet continued to chair the CCP Central Military Commission (that is, was commander-in-chief of the armed [End Page 15] forces) until November 1989. Zhao Ziyang had become CCP general secretary in January 1987 and as such outranked Deng under the CCP charter, but in fact Deng held veto power regarding major policy matters. He also held a veto on personnel: It was Deng who forced out the reformist general secretary Hu Yaobang in early 1987 and then did the same to Zhao Ziyang in May 1989, as the top CCP leaders engaged in a backroom power struggle over what to do about the student protests in Tiananmen Square.

Under Deng’s purported institutionalization, the only term-limited senior position was the PRC presidency. That is largely a ceremonial post, however, and Xi removed the term limit on it in 2018 (he has held the office since 2013). With rules in place that were not genuinely rules, the CCP was fortunate that a fragile balance of power among rival factions held the collective leadership together as long as it did. This power balance ensured the personal and professional security of the ruling elites—until Xi rose from the ranks of the Party leadership and consolidated power. He became CCP general secretary in late 2012 and began systematically purging his rivals, chief among them the Party boss of Chongqing, Bo Xilai (who went to prison for life). Xi now fills all three of the top posts—holding the PRC presidency while running the military and the Party—with no term limits. Deng and his fellow victims of Maoist rule built an elaborate-looking edifice of “institutionalization.” Xi exposed it as nothing but a house of cards.

Looking back, was there a path that might have preserved the rules of collective leadership, term limits, and elite security? If there was, it would have lain in the direction of broader political reforms touching on democratization and the creation of an independent judiciary. Only by these means could credible “third-party enforcers” and autonomous power centers have come onto the scene. But in a “frozen” post-totalitarian regime such as that of post-Mao China, reforms of this sort were seen as anathema because of their potential to undermine one-party rule. Consequently, few real obstacles could block the regime’s regression to neo-Stalinism under Xi.

China’s Democratic Future

Few, including the top CCP leaders who were feuding among themselves in the mid-2000s, foresaw the return to strongman rule under Xi. If they had, they would never have elevated him to the loftiest height of the collective leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), in 2007. But for those familiar with the rise and fall of Bo Xilai—Xi’s fellow Party “princeling,” colleague on the 25-member Politburo, and archrival—there were ample warning signs that conditions in China were ripe for a strongman’s return. As CCP chief of Chongqing from 2008 to 2012, Bo carried out a nationally publicized campaign that [End Page 16] mixed propaganda glorifying Maoism with brazen confiscation of the assets of wealthy entrepreneurs falsely accused of organized crime.

Everyone knew that Bo was staking out a far-left position as part of a play for promotion to the PSC, but no one in the Chinese leadership dared to step forward and publicly criticize his tactics. On the contrary, nearly every top leader, including Xi himself, made the trek southwest to Chongqing to endorse Bo’s revival of Maoism. If the Party could not stop Bo, a mere Politburo member, before an accidental scandal ended his neo-Maoist gambit in March 2012, it is hard to see how it could have barred Xi’s march to sole dominance once he gained the regime’s top post, that of CCP general secretary, later that year.

Even though, as we have seen, the legacy institutions of totalitarianism were decaying too slowly to allow the effects of economic modernization to democratize China, Xi did not and does not see things that way. He is ideologically committed to orthodox communism, and took power believing that the decaying institutions of the Leninist party-state posed an existential threat to regime survival.

As Xi’s speeches reveal, the USSR’s fall weighs heavily on his mind. Shortly after he became general secretary, he warned a closed gathering of CCP officials to heed the lesson of the Soviet collapse. “An important reason” why Mikhail Gorbachev was able to send “a great [communist] party” to oblivion, said Xi, “was that their ideals and convictions wavered. … In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”29

Xi then went about reintroducing Stalinist rule. After eight years in power, he has engineered a neo-Stalinist political revolution that has fundamentally altered the trajectory of post-Mao China. Although Xi is convinced that his neo-Stalinist survival strategy will reinvigorate a decaying post-totalitarian regime, it is far from clear that he drew the right lessons from the Soviet collapse. His neo-Stalinist strategy will almost certainly exacerbate existing tensions, create new challenges, and undermine the CCP’s long-term survival prospects.

The problems with one-man rule are many and widely known: bureaucratic passivity and buck-passing, narrow policy deliberation (no one wants to go against the leader’s preferences), and inability to hold the leader back from taking excessive risks. Signature Xi Jinping policies such as the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, the building of militarized artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, the mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang, and the imposition of a harsh national-security law on Hong Kong, have produced adverse outcomes that will cost the Party dearly in years to come. Xi’s efforts to strengthen the Party through indoctrination are unlikely to make its more than ninety-million members—softened by decades of material comfort—genuine believers in an ideology that is irrelevant to their lived experience. [End Page 17]

The biggest threat to China’s neo-Stalinist order is a succession struggle. One now looms on the horizon. Having done away with the presidential term limit, the 67-year-old Xi is set for open-ended rule. If he grooms a successor, it will probably be a weak loyalist. As happened after Stalin’s death and Mao’s, once Xi is gone a power struggle will ensue. Xi’s anointed successor will likely lose it, putting the Xi Jinping political legacy at risk. Like Nikita Khrushchev and Deng Xiaoping, the winner of the post-Xi succession struggle will be incentivized to set a new course for a crisis-ridden regime that has labored under decades of strongman rule.

The outlines of a regime-threatening crisis can already be seen in the PRC’s loss of economic momentum. Of all the things that prop up post-totalitarianism in China, the key bulwark has been the fast-growing, export-led economy. Growth gives the CCP a crucial claim to “performance legitimacy” and undergirds its rule. Ominously for the Party, an aging Chinese society will struggle to maintain the torrid pace of economic growth that has come to seem the norm over the last several decades. China’s median age now is what Japan’s was in the early 1990s. The UN estimates that by 2030, about 17 percent of the PRC’s population (roughly a quarter-billion people) will be 65 or older.30

Even more immediately worrisome to the Party is the economic decoupling that is now going on between the PRC and the West, especially the United States. Even before the covid pandemic, the turn toward neo-Stalinism at home and Xi’s aggressive foreign policy were fueling a split with Washington and (to a lesser extent) U.S. allies. Disengagement is ongoing in trade, technology, and finance. If the established democracies restrict China’s access to technology and markets, the growth potential of the PRC’s economy will suffer further erosion.

How the U.S.-China strategic conflict will unfold—and how intense it may become—are still matters of uncertainty. Already it bears some resemblance to the Cold War, and its implications for the CCP’s hold on power are not likely to be favorable. Driven by the strategic logic of containment, Washington will deploy the considerable tools at its disposal to undermine the CCP’s political monopoly. While the pace may vary under the new Joseph Biden administration, the U.S.-China economic decoupling that began under the presidency of Donald Trump will continue. Rising tensions could set off both an arms race and a contest for diplomatic influence over third-party regimes that will siphon resources away from China’s domestic needs.

Given the self-destructive dynamics of neo-Stalinism and the strategic odds stacked against the Party, the future could see Xi’s nightmare realized as economic, political, and external conditions akin to those that plagued the late-stage Soviet regime begin to beset CCP rule.

By that time, China’s socioeconomic conditions will be even more favorable for a democratic breakthrough than they are today. Even if we [End Page 18] assume annual growth averaging 3 percent between now and 2035 (a very modest figure by PRC standards), that will yield a per capita GDP exceeding $25,000 a year in Purchasing Power Parity terms. Meanwhile, another hundred-million people will have graduated from college, raising the share of the populace with a postsecondary degree to just over a fifth.31

Will this bring a decisive political mobilization against one-party rule by 2035? No one can say, but with a per capita income which will be equal to that of Chile today and about three-hundred million college-educated citizens, Chinese society will by then be abler than ever to press for democratic change. If the fate of post-totalitarian communist dictatorships in the old Soviet bloc is any guide, a bet worth making is that China’s long journey from Maoism to neo-Stalinism via a three-decade trip through post-totalitarianism will be seen as a historical detour that delayed but could not prevent a rendezvous with democratic change. When that meeting happens, Lipset’s modernization thesis shall have its last laugh—and China may finally march out of the long, dark shadow of its totalitarian past.



The author wishes to thank Hilary Appel, Andrew Nathan, Guoguang Wu, and Andrew Walder for their helpful comments.

1. Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (March 1959): 69–105.

2. Henry S. Rowen, “When Will the Chinese People Be Free?” Journal of Democracy 18 (July 2007): 38–52.

3. Belarus receives major energy subsidies from Russia, so only Turkey truly qualifies as a non–oil-producing autocracy with a higher per capita income than China.

4. On China’s reversion to neo-Stalinism under Xi, see Elizabeth C. Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); and Richard McGregor, “Party Man: Xi Jinping’s Quest to Dominate China,” Foreign Affairs 98 (September–October 2019): 18–25.

5. Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” 72. Italics in original.

6. Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” 100.

7. Seymour Martin Lipset, “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address,” American Sociological Review 59 (February 1994): 4. The dispersion of socioeconomic resources is also noted as a favorable structural precondition for democracy by Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 48–61.

8. Recent research shows that revolutionary regimes, including communist ones, are more durable than other dictatorships thanks to cohesive ruling parties, powerful and loyal security organizations, and the destruction of potential centers of opposition. See Jean Lachapelle et al., “Social Revolution and Authoritarian Durability,” World Politics 72 (October 2020): 557–92.

9. Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945–1957 (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).

10. Jeane Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Commentary, November 1979, 34–45; Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

11. On the 1980s reforms, see Julian Gewirtz, The Remaking of China: Myth, Modernization, and the Tumult of the 1980s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, forthcoming).

12. Linz and Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, 42.

14. Andrew J. Nathan, “The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class,” Journal of Democracy 27 (April 2016): 5–19.

15. See China Statistical Yearbook 2020 [in Chinese],

16. Yanzhong Huang, “At the Mercy of the State: Health Philanthropy in China,” Voluntas 30 (August 2019): 634–46; Carolyn L. Hsu and Yuzhou Jiang, “An Institutional Approach to Chinese NGOs: State Alliance versus State Avoidance Resource Strategies,” China Quarterly 221 (March 2015): 100–22.

17. “The Chinese Communist Party Has Grown Steadily: 90.59 Million Party Members and 4.61 Million Grassroots Party Organizations” [in Chinese], Xinhua News Agency, 30 June 2019,; for the size of CCP membership between 1921 and 1999, see

18. See Rebecca MacKinnon, “Liberation Technology: China’s ‘Networked Authoritarianism,'” Journal of Democracy 22 (April 2011): 32–46; and Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” American Political Science Review 107 (May 2013): 1–18.

19. James Tong, Revenge of the Forbidden City: The Suppression of the Falungong in China, 1999–2005 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

20. Amnesty International, “Up to One Million Detained in China’s Mass ‘Re-Education’ Drive,” September 2018,

21. Joseph Fewsmith, The Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

22. See Yasheng Huang, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Nicholas R. Lardy, The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China? (Washington: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2019).

23. Data for the 1980s are from Minxin Pei, From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 89; data for 2017 are from Zhang Chunlin, “How Much Do State-Owned Enterprises Contribute to China’s GDP and Employment?” 15 July 2019, World Bank,

24. Zhang Chunlin, “How Much Do State-Owned Enterprises Contribute to China’s GDP and Employment?”

25. This is based on Zhang Chunlin, “How Much Do State-Owned Enterprises Contribute to China’s GDP and Employment?” as well as World Bank and China Statistical Yearbook data.

26. Xi Jinping, “Several Major Issues in the National Medium- and Long-Term Economic and Social Development Strategy” [in Chinese], Xinhua News Agency, 31 October 2020,

27. Nicholas R. Lardy, “China’s Private Firms Continue to Struggle,” 4 June 2019, Peterson Institute for International Economics, China Economic Watch blog,

28. Carl F. Minzner, “China’s Turn Against Law,” American Journal of Comparative Law 59 (Fall 2011): 935–84; Suisheng Zhao, “The Ideological Campaign in Xi’s China,” Asian Survey 56 (November–December 2016): 1168–93.

29. Chris Buckley, “Vows of Change in China Belie Private Warning,” New York Times, 14 February 2013.

30. United Nations, World Population Prospects 2019,

31. The China Statistical Yearbook says that 7.5 million people graduated from colleges in 2019. If that number merely holds steady as the average annual increase over the next fifteen years, China will add 112.5 million graduates during that time. The college-graduate share of the populace in 2019 was 14.6 percent, so adding a hundred-million more graduates (about 7 percent of the total population) should raise their share to about 21 percent.


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