For the past three decades, the Chinese Communist Party has maintained power by offering its citizens a bargain they could not resist: The citizens support the Communist Party’s authoritarian grip on power, and in return the party keeps the economy growing and uses the cash to give everyone a better life. As China moves into its next development phase, it’s going to be harder for the party to keep up their end of the deal. To complicate matters further, instead of accepting less, the Chinese people are going to be demanding even more.
Many Chinese people—particularly in China’s growing middle class—already have decent homes, cars, and plenty to eat. Now they want a more transparent government, cleaner air and water, safer food and drug supplies, and a judicial system that actually works. That creates a big problem for the Chinese Communist Party because those benefits are very hard for an authoritarian regime to deliver without losing its grip on power.
Beijing may not have a choice, however, because when the party does not give the Chinese people what they want on some of these quality-of-life issues, the people increasingly have been responding by going to the streets in mass protests. That strikes terror in the hearts of the Chinese leadership because any time their citizens protest, they worry that the unrest could spread and trigger another Tiananmen-style crisis. If that were to happen, it would likely bring an end to the Communist Party regime because in the modern Internet era, Chinese leaders cannot launch another Tiananmen-style crackdown and maintain any vestige of popular support.
To survive, Chinese leaders must find a way to deliver enough quality-of-life improvements to keep their citizens—particularly the urban middle class—from protesting. Unfortunately, that will not be easy to achieve. Whether the new leadership can manage to do so will depend to a large extent on economic growth.
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