In 1989, in the wake of the crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the moral and ideological standing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was at an all-time low. Popular complaints about corruption and special privileges for the elite were widespread. Idealistic language about socialism was seen as empty sloganeering. The Tiananmen killings showed that the “people’s army” could open fire on the people themselves. China’s agricultural economy had been partially liberated, but the urban economy still seemed locked within the iron framework of a work-unit system that was both inefficient and corrupt. No one either inside or outside China saw the country as a model for others.
Now, nearly 20 years later, the prestige of the CCP has risen dramatically on the twin geysers of a long economic boom and a revived Han chauvinism. The expectation that more wealth in China would lead to more democracy (a fond hope in many foreign capitals) has been frustrated as one-party rule persists. Burgeoning wealth remains largely in the hands of a political-economic elite that has successfully co-opted business and intellectual circles; far from forming a middle class that might challenge authority, these groups now have reason to join their rulers in repressing “instability” among the people. Whether such repression can survive the current economic downturn remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the CCP has also deliberately stoked and shaped Chinese nationalism, and many Chinese inside China now feel pride in the CCP’s model of authoritarian development. The party’s "thoughtwork" has come to include—in addition to censorship—the fashioning of textbooks, television documentaries, museums, and other media that spread seriously distorted versions of Chinese history.
A “China model” has also begun to gain currency abroad. It has automatic appeal among authoritarian elites who seek modern formulas for maintaining their power while also growing their economies, and it has begun to win over even average people in a number of developing countries, where decades of free-market reforms have failed to stimulate broad economic growth. China’s rulers, aiming to extend their influence internationally and make gains in the worldwide competition for natural resources, have sought ways to engage foreign elites and foreign publics in “win-win” arrangements. Beijing offers aid and investment with no human rights strings attached, runs training programs in China for foreign officials and students, opens cultural centers (Confucius Institutes) within foreign universities, and offers diplomatic cover to repressive regimes at the United Nations and elsewhere. It has become apparent in recent years that both Beijing and its authoritarian allies around the world see the Chinese system as a viable competitor to democracy. Terms such as democracy and human rights are retained in their lexicons, but they are redefined to serve authoritarian interests. Even in some democratic or recently democratic developing countries, including Thailand, the appeal of the China model has started to grow.
But the China model, although a definite threat to democratic values, is no juggernaut. Its appeal will depend in large part on how the Chinese economy weathers the global downturn, and how any stumbles it might encounter are perceived in the developing world. Moreover, on the domestic front, the CCP is more frightened of its own citizenry than most outside observers realize. “Rights consciousness” has recently been on the rise among the Chinese people, and it is not a phenomenon that fits well with authoritarianism. Similarly, the CCP’s international deal-making strategies have involved foreign elites almost exclusively; ultimate success would require much more support among local nongovernmental organizations, civil society, and the media. In short, Beijing’s challenge to democracy is a crisis in the original sense of the word—the course of events could turn either way.