"The Party Can't Rule Forever."
Yes it can. Or at least for the foreseeable future. Unlike in Taiwan and South Korea, China's middle class has not emerged with any clear demand for Western-style democracy. There are some obvious reasons why. All three of China's close Asian neighbors, including Japan, became democracies at different times and in different circumstances. But all were effectively U.S. protectorates, and Washington was crucial in forcing through democratic change or institutionalizing it. South Korea's decision to announce elections ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, for example, was made under direct U.S. pressure. Japan and South Korea are also smaller and more homogeneous societies, lacking the vast continental reach of China and its multitude of clashing nationalities and ethnic groups. And needless to say, none underwent a communist revolution whose founding principle was driving foreign imperialists out of the country.
China's urban middle class may wish for more political freedom, but it hasn't dared rise up en masse against the state because it has so much to lose. Over the last three decades, the party has enacted a broad array of economic reforms, even as it has clamped down hard on dissent. The freedom to consume -- be it in the form of cars, real estate, or well-stocked supermarkets -- is much more attractive than vague notions of democracy, especially when individuals pushing for political reform could lose their livelihoods and even their freedom. The cost of opposing the party is prohibitively high. Hence the hotbeds of unrest in recent years have mostly been rural areas, where China's poorest, who are least invested in the country's economic miracle, reside. "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose except your mortgages" doesn't quite cut it as a revolutionary slogan.
All this is why some analysts see splits within the party as a more likely vehicle for political change. Like any large political organization, the Chinese Communist Party is factionalized along multiple lines, ranging from local fiefdoms (exemplified on the national stage by the "Shanghai Gang" under former President Jiang Zemin) to internal party networks (like the senior cadres tied to the Communist Youth League through Jiang's successor Hu Jintao). There are also clear policy disputes over everything from the proper pace of political liberalization to the extent of the private sector's role in the economy.
But highlighting these differences can obscure the larger reality. Since 1989, when the party split at the top and almost came asunder, the cardinal rule has been no public divisions in the Politburo. Today, top-level cooperation is as much the norm as debilitating factional competition. Xi Jinping, the heir apparent, is set to take over at the next party congress in 2012. Assuming his likely deputy, Li Keqiang, follows with the usual five-year term, China's top leadership seems set until 2022. For the Chinese, the United States looks increasingly like a banana republic by comparison.
The idea that China would one day become a democracy was always a Western notion, born of our theories about how political systems evolve. Yet all evidence so far suggests these theories are wrong. The party means what it says: It doesn't want China to be a Western democracy -- and it seems to have all the tools it needs to ensure that it doesn't become one.