Argument

Ozymandias in Beijing

Contrary to what you might think, the Chinese Communist Party is going to crumble one day.

Nothing lasts forever, not even the Chinese Communist Party. Whether it will perish in a few years, or last for decades to come, there are a series of worrying indicators. Beijing has been slow to implement reforms that will orient the economy on a sustainable path. President Xi Jinping is knee-deep in an anti-corruption campaign against senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members unprecedented in its reach and scope in modern China, raising concerns about the party's ability to police itself. Meanwhile, outside the corridors of power, China's increasingly sophisticated populace is concerned with pollution, freedom of speech, and the country's relationship with its neighbors, especially Japan. It's impossible to predict the future, of course, and the CCP overcame greater challenges following Mao's death in 1976 and after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. But six months shy of the Communist Party's 65th anniversary of ruling China, it's worth emphasizing that the party and China are not the same thing -- China predates the party, and will outlast it.* 

Russia's Communist Party, which molded the Soviet Union into its own image and dominated it from the union's 1922 formation to its 1991 dissolution, offers the best cautionary tale for the party. But in looking for ways to forestall the inevitable, the party may want to also study the experience of a government further afield: that of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, commonly known by its Spanish initials as PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. Mexico under the PRI was not only the longest running one-party state of the 20th century, the PRI also fared well after losing power. Today, the Russian Communist Party is in shambles; its saints and leaders -- Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev -- have been disgraced. The PRI elite, on the other hand, faced relatively little backlash after they lost power in 2000. And in a relatively free and far election, Mexicans voted the PRI back into power in 2012 -- an ideal consolation prize for a party that formerly monopolized power.  

While the CCP and PRI structurally and ideologically are very different, the experiences they fostered, and the situations they find themselves in, have some striking similarities. The USSR on the eve of its collapse was an empire, overextended from an arms race with the United States and reeling from a 10-year quagmire in Afghanistan. Poverty was rampant, international travel was restricted, and Moscow's autarkic economy meant domestic products were shoddy and foreign goods were scarce. By contrast, Mexico and China were (and are) healthily integrated into global markets. Mexico's economy in the decade leading up to the PRI's fall from power, despite an economic crisis in the mid-1990s, kept expanding healthily, as China's continues to do. While much of the Soviet Union's leadership in the 1970s and 1980s was stunningly incompetent, China today and Mexico under the PRI were ruled by competent technocrats. (In 1990, Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa called Mexico a "perfect dictatorship" -- faint praise that could be applied to China as well.) 

Beijing's mostly measured authoritarianism after the death of Mao in 1976 is more similar to Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s than the brutal repression that characterized most of the Soviet Union's history. And a corruption crackdown in the 1990s against Raul Salinas, whose brother Carlos had just stepped down from the presidency, exposed the breathtaking corruption and the splintering of the Mexican elite -- not unlike the current corruption scandal involving former security czar Zhou Yongkang, which may do the same thing for China.

Yet the CCP continues to fixate on comparisons with the shambolic USSR. A six-part party-made documentary about the Soviet Union's collapse, based on a 2012 book, has recently been shown at dozens of political meetings. The movie begins with a narrator warning, "On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the death of the Soviet Union and its party, we are walking on the same ground." And in a December 2012 speech, Xi reportedly told party insiders. "Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered." But by obsessing over the USSR, "I think they're looking at the wrong example," says Jorge Guajardo, who served as Mexico's ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013. In hindsight, he told Foreign Policy, "living in China on a daily basis felt like living in Mexico under the PRI."

Guajardo remembers watching the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on Oct. 1, 2009, held on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in central Beijing. The celebrations -- meant to communicate longevity and legitimacy -- featured a military parade of 10,000 troops, where then-Chinese President Hu Jintao declaimed the oft-spoken slogan "gongchandang wansui"-- literally, "Ten thousand years for the CCP." The CCP's confidence -- and that of his fellow ambassadors, who seemed to believe that that the CCP would govern in perpetuity -- reminded Guajardo of the PRI. "Everyone agreed that Mexico was governed by one party, and that it would be that way forever," he said.  (In 1995, Guajardo joined the opposition National Action Party [PAN], whose victory in the 2000 elections ended the PRI's monopoly on power.)

The similarities between the widely held assumption that China is the party and the party is China reminded him of a time, in the not-too-distant past, when there was no daylight between the PRI and Mexico. Guajardo, who's now a senior director at McLarty Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy, started noticing other comparisons. The dissatisfaction with the government's handling of a massive earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 helped spur the growth of civil society, which reminded him of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, "which laid bare the PRI's corruption, lack of transparency, and inefficiency," he said in a January 2014 speech. 

And just as the PRI fought corruption by going after the "big fish," Xi has vowed to go after "tigers and flies" -- both high-ranking and low-ranking corrupt officials.

"On economic, political, and social dimensions -- in some ways they're very similar," says Li He, a professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts and author of the book From Revolution to Reform: A Comparative Study of China and Mexico. Both countries, Li said, faced wrenching peasant revolutions before a strong, single party unified the country. Both adapted liberal economic reforms both domestically and internationally -- Mexico joined NAFTA in 1994, China entered the WTO in 2001, nearly 25 years after it began its comprehensive Reform and Opening policy.

The PRI lost power in 2000, "but until the 1990s, it was completely laughable to be in the opposition," Guajardo said. "You were seen as a loser who couldn't get a real job. Same in China."

Guajardo recalls a 2008 meeting in Beijing between Enrique Peña Nieto, then a state governor and now the first post-2000 PRI president of Mexico, and an official from China's Communist Party who focused on Latin American affairs: "The first question they asked was, ‘Why did the PRI lose power?' Nieto responded, ‘The tiredness of the system. Since we were the single party in power, we were blamed for everything.'" (Nieto's spokesperson couldn't be reached for comment.)

There are many obvious areas of difference between the two political parties and their experiences. China's population of 1.3 billion people is of course far larger than Mexico's 120 million. And Mexico under the PRI held (and rigged) presidential elections -- Beijing doesn't hold national elections. Believing that the CCP can learn from the experiences of the PRI is decidedly not a mainstream view in China. While many countries face problems like corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor, "this of course doesn't mean that what happened in Mexico will happen in China," says Jiang Shixue, the deputy head of the Latin American Studies Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country's top think-tank. Chinese party press occasionally write articles about why the PRI lost power, but comparing China to the USSR is far more common.

An article about China's current anti-corruption campaign published on the website of CCP journal Seeking Truth in January summed up the lessons to be learned from the Soviet Union: "If corruption cannot be effectively controlled, the people will eventually no longer recognize [the validity] of the ruling party." The conviction learned from the failure of the Soviet Union seems to be that rooting out corruption will ensure the people remain faithful to the CCP. But what lessons can be learned from Mexico? "I would tell Xi to stop the anti-corruption campaign," says Guajardo. "The system is built on corruption. Get used to it, own up to it."

Perhaps the best lesson is that all political parties lose power eventually. "No one for a second assumed you can have Mexico without the PRI," said Guajardo. "But you could."

*Correction, April 21, 2014: Oct 2014 is the 65th anniversary of the CCP's rule over China, not the CCP.(Return to reading.)

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Rise of Valls

Hollande's right-leaning prime minister wants to reinvent the Socialist Party -- and he might just dethrone the president in the process.

Ever since the 1980s, France's Fifth Republic has experienced periods of "cohabitation," when legislative elections have forced the president to name the opposition leader as prime minister. This was the case with François Mitterand, obliged to "cohabitate" with his nemesis Jacques Chirac, just as the conservative Chirac subsequently cohabitated with the Socialist Lionel Jospin. By naming Manuel Valls as his new prime minister following his party's disastrous performance in municipal elections earlier this month, President François Hollande offers a new riff on this practice: He must now cohabitate with a fellow Socialist who wants not only to replace him, but to replace the term "Socialist" with something else entirely.

In the second round of municipal elections last month, the ruling Socialists lost control of 151 cities -- a pounding even greater than the one François Mitterrand's Socialists absorbed in 1983. As more than one commentator observed, it was a veritable Battle of Berezina for the Socialist Party. Like Napoleon's army, which suffered horrific losses but escaped Russian encirclement in 1812, the Socialists are reeling from the right's massive assault on their local fiefs, but have managed to maintain control of national institutions.

That hold is terribly fragile. From the heights of the Elysée, Hollande took full measure of the electoral rout. During his presidential campaign, he had run under the slogan: "Change is now." Once he defeated the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, however, it became clear that "change" was little more than the passage of tired Socialist nostrums: boosting taxes and bolstering threatened industries. Through either hubris or desperation, the government raised taxes not only on the 1 percent -- the notorious 75 percent marginal rate on millionaires that drove Gérard Depardieu into the arms of Vladimir Putin -- but also ratcheted up the TVA, or sales tax, which punished the other 99 percent. Two years later, with the nation sagging even more deeply under the weight of rising unemployment, lagging productivity, and persistent deficits, "now" had finally arrived. With little more than two years left in his term, Hollande has no choice but to change -- or "now" will mark his political end.

The first head to fall belonged to Hollande's prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose chief virtue, moderation, was also his chief flaw. The former German professor was incapable of knocking heads together and forcing his cabinet to fall into line. His challenge was even greater because Hollande had failed to establish a clear line for him to follow, while his ministers came from wildly different ideological sensibilities, ranging from Green Party members and traditional social democrats at one end of the spectrum to liberals of the French free-market variety at the other.

Among the various candidates Hollande considered to replace Ayrault as prime minister, Manuel Valls was the only one who hadn't voted for Mitterrand in 1981. This was not a question of politics, but of citizenship: Valls didn't become a French citizen until 1982, when he was 20 years old. But it could have just as easily been for ideological reasons, since the Spanish-born Frenchman has long been to the right on the left. When he joined the Socialist Party in the early 1980s, he did so under the wing of Michel Rocard, who served as a prime minister under Mitterrand and pushed for a liberalization of France's statist economic model.

Ambitious and telegenic, Valls moved rapidly up the party's ranks, taking a seat in the National Assembly in 2001, as well as one in city hall for the Parisian suburb of Evry. (The so-called "accumulation of mandates," which allows politicians to serve simultaneously in different national, regional, and local offices, is a perennial subject of debate in France.) As the party's director of communications, he gained national prominence, as well as the attention of Sarkozy, who in 2007 invited Valls to join his new government (although he never said publicly in what capacity). To the surprise -- and perhaps disappointment -- of a number of fellow Socialists, Valls refused the offer.

Like Sarkozy, who built his career on exploiting popular fears over immigration, crime, and national identity, Valls challenged many of the left's sacred cows. In fact, shortly after becoming mayor of Evry, which boasts a significant Muslim community, Valls became embroiled in a controversy over cows and the sacred. When he learned that a local supermarket planned to specialize in halal meats, and remove all wine and pork products from its shelves, Valls exploded that it was "intolerable." Such a "sectarian" move, he declared, undermined the secular principles of the republic. (The store's owner maintained that the sale of alcohol was undermining the social fabric of his neighborhood.)

Valls invoked the duties of republican citizenship again in 2007, when he criticized the abolition of the military draft by President Jacques Chirac a decade earlier. While Valls did not call for its resurrection, he argued -- rightly, in the view of many -- that the army served an important agent of social assimilation and integration. For this reason, he suggested that France should introduce a different kind of obligatory civil service for its youth, one that would "inspire a sense duty and belonging to the nation." The Socialist candidate for president, Ségolène Royal, made the proposal her own, along with the promise, should she become president, that every Frenchman and woman would learn the words of "La Marseillaise." 

Royal, who Valls supported, went on to lose in a landslide to Sarkozy. This suggested, of course, that many French disagreed with her views on republican duty. But it also made clear that many on the left, roiled by her proposals, worried about the kind of nationalist revival that Valls seemed to embody. Yet his greatest disturbance was yet to come: Not only did the nation mean everything, but the word "socialism" had come to mean nothing. The party, he announced during an interview in 2009, had to change its direction, methods, program and even its name -- although to what, he did not say. While the conservatives gloated, the Socialists glared: The party's leader, Martine Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour work week and leader of the traditionalist wing, invited Valls to quit a party in which he clearly felt so ill at ease.

Five years later, it is Valls who might as well extend that invitation to Aubry. She is now exiled to the city hall of Lille, while Valls seems poised to take control of the party whose name he can hardly bear to speak. This attests not just to his political skill, but also to the accuracy of his assessment of the Socialist Party's future. In an op-ed he published, tellingly, in the Financial Times, Valls declared that the Socialists had to change or die. Under Hollande, they plumped, if unwittingly, for the latter option. By resigning himself to the inevitable and naming Valls as his new prime minister, Hollande is now trying to reverse course.

Will he succeed? As Hollande's minister of the interior, Valls won notoriety for his severe stance on immigration, particularly in regard to France's Roma population. Valls ordered the dismantling of several of Roma camps and the deportation to Romania of hundreds of families, all the while declaring that the Roma have a "vocation" to return to their native lands. Many on the left denounced his policies, declaring that he was playing the very same race card that Sarkozy had with such success.

The real challenge confronting Valls, however, is not a handful of Roma camps, but resistance within his own party to economic and social reform. The make-up of his cabinet, the product of much wrangling with Hollande, resembles the pushmi-pullyu from Hugh Lofting's The Story of Dr. Doolittle. Newly installed at the Ministry of Economy is Arnaud Montebourg, a firebrand whose philippics against the forces of globalization and pressures of the European Union place him utterly at odds with the mildly pro-business and anti-statist Valls. This inherent tension has crackled as recently as April 16, when Valls presented the details of the government's plan to cut 50 billion euros in state spending by 2017. About 40 percent of the savings will come from reductions in social welfare programs, with the rest clawed back from various ministries and local government. Predictably, the leaders of the so-called "One Hundred" -- the left wing of the Socialist Party -- have denounced Valls's plan. In another time and place, Montebourg, who has remained remarkably quiet, would have been leading these so-called "frondeurs," or rebels.

In his first official speech to the National Assembly, Valls offered a rousing declaration of love for his adopted nation, one whose republican principles allowed him to become prime minister. These same principles, of course, would also allow him to become France's next president.

Holland cannot be comforted by the latest opinion poll, which reveals that he continues to go where no French president has gone before: Only 18 percent of the French approve of his performance in office. At the same time, nearly 60 percent have a favorable opinion of Valls. It remains to be seen what impact yesterday's speech, which he refused to call an "austerity plan," will have on his popularity. He clearly thinks the French are ready to make such sacrifices. If Valls is right, Hollande will have invited in a formidable opponent indeed.

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