There Are No Successful Autocracies

I want to respond to Kroeber’s recent argument that, “the Chinese state is not fragile.” it instead a “strong, increasingly self-confident” regime “without organized opposition.” After trying to turn conventional wisdom on its head, he argues “China is a successful authoritarian developmental state which is now rich enough to start setting its own rules rather than just accepting other peoples’. This, he says, “is the Xi project.” At center stage is Kroeber’s rebuttal of what he thinks a simply incorrect model, “no problem can simply be a problem; it must be an existential crisis.” I will defend this model in the space below. I ask that you bear with me for a paragraph or two of background theory.

Let us put this question into motion along two axes: democratization and resilience.  Questions on fragility today are usually analyzed through the theoretical lens of social-ecological resilience. The best work comes from the Resilience Alliance, which has developed and promoted C.S. Holling’s ‘adaptive cycle‘ lens from socio-ecological resilience theory. We can use ‘regimes’ and ‘basins of attraction’ interchangeably here. I should insert here the caveat that there is still debate how how much socio-ecological systems analysis can be applied to ‘mostly social’ systems. 

The archetypical example of adaptive cycles might be the Yellowstone Fire. Park managers maintained what they thought was the ideal system state of Yellowstone, letting it grow thick and full of forest life in the 1970s and 80s, and always stamped out brush fires immediately. This is archetypical Late K maintenance. All of this maintenance stores and tries to contain larger and larger amounts of energy. In Yellowstone this was underbrush. The high cost of maintenance means the systems grow vulnerable to collapse from otherwise small shocks. Brushfires were banned until the whole park burned to the ground.


To take it to regimes and politics, let’s take the case of Libya. We entered the 21st century with a very stable Libyan state. From the outside it seemed like it would stay like it was for the foreseeable future. Protests in neighboring states spread, ignited ethnic divides, and the cost of conserving the regime became civil war. The regime lost. After such an epic release, the Libyan polity will be in exploitation and reorganization phases for some time before any durable regimes emerges (a conservation state). Any sober analysis sees only turbulence now for the foreseeable future. 

We can take from that the first lesson: order breaks down into chaos (conservation to release) far more readily than order taking hold from chaos (which must pass through exploitation and reorganizational phases). Kroeber challenges this by saying that, “like any large state, China has large problems, but the Party’s rule is not threatened by umbrella-wielding students in Hong Kong or striking schoolteachers in Heilongjiang, any more than the American regime is threatened by rioters in Ferguson.”

Stability Maintenance 

Stable governments sit atop enormous amounts of energy that must be managed through inclusion or coercion. A stable regime is in a conversation phase but is moving in one direction or the other: reorganization/exploitation or conservation (K). Reorganization is messy; ‘Late K’ is expensive to maintain and is always a crisis away from release. What emerges is a seemingly stable, strong state that can withstand challenge after challenge until one day it cannot. It is a dam rising until it collapses from the pressure behind it. The association people have with autocracy and weakness is captured in this – the further along K (conservation) you get the costlier it is to maintain and the more energy builds up for a release.

We might also take from this a second lesson that there are enormous political energies hidden behind the veils of autocracy, which brings in our second axis: democratization. As Charles Tilly argued, we should see democracy as a verb rather than a noun – moves towards or away from pluralism and participation, coercion and repression. Where the Chinese state is “well-informed by research and public opinion surveys,” the American regime is armed with political surprise and novelty. Whatever its many troubles, the American government is machine that absorbs politics rather than shunting them. America can still find itself electing the first black president, with a middle name of Hussein, as the first post-9/11 president.

Ferguson rioters are given opportunities for ‘hope and change’ that “umbrella-wielding students in Hong Kong or striking schoolteachers in Heilongjiang” simply are not. Electoral politics and a vibrant civil society give way to systemic reorganization and exploitation in ways that the Chinese state does not permit. There was no ‘bottom line’ with the indictment of deadly police officers in the United States regime like there was with issues of universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The construction of a state “without organized opposition” requires a costly permanent war on opposition. It comes to the tune of $83.5 billion a year in China. 

China’s Latent Disorder

Kroeber writes that, “even if one conservatively reckons the true growth rate at 6.5 percent or so, China’s economy is expanding at three times the rate of the healthiest developed economy, the U.S., and faster than the other big high-growth countries in Asia, India, and Indonesia.” He mocks those whose story goes that China, “must keep economic growth running at some arbitrarily high rate (eight percent? seven percent? six percent?), or the regime will collapse.” In this he is correct – the CCP is under more pressure to produce economic growth than other states.This is of their own design.

To summarize what requires book-length treatment, the CCP has made China a laboratory where Rostow’s largely discredited model is being constructed as authoritarian high modernist reality. The economic dynamics do not favor increased urbanization, but the CCP is pushing it anyway with school closures, resettlement, and other coercive measures. They are aiming to reforge villagers into a consumer class that exist only in planner’s imaginations. This is the ‘transition’ that everyone speaks of. Export-based growth is not sufficient to absorb this level of social displacement. GDP figures are only the crudest measurement of how well the government has done in managing this transition. 

This level of management demands autocracy, bringing the CCP to a very expensive pattern of Late K maintenance that requires an almost magical level of economic transformation to work. So Xi is digging in, centralizing power, and cutting off dissent both inside and outside the party.  Any tiger, fly, blogger, or scholar that stands in the way must be crushed. The wheels are coming off the political cart. There is a very real possibility that this transition will not happen – there is, to my mind, no evidence of it having been successfully forced anywhere else.

So what, for a hundred million more displaced people, would a middle income trap or another global economic crisis mean? He must also manage a periphery (even the rich and urban periphery) that is restive and far too commonly violent, petty and corrupt cadres, provincial bosses that don’t follow orders, and a generation of Chinese with new ideas of what political participation looks like. As one Xi supporter noted, “he has adopted Leninist ideology not to return to the old Leninist path, but to suppress an explosion in political participation, and create a healthy, stable political environment for reform.” 

Brittle Rule

The view from Hong Kong is that this is all very brittle. Issues like Hong Kong’s Chief Executive recruitment should essentially be non-issues for a strong regime – that was, in fact, the position of the National People’s Congress in 2007. Conventional wisdom is right here: flagrant displays of power like 8/31 are a sign of weakness, not strength. That they thought such a minor reorganization, a political brush fire, couldn’t be borne tells us how dense and dry they think the underbrush is. Xi all but birthed a nationalist movement just to ensure the CCP not only had veto power on Chief Executive candidates already enshrined in the Basic Law, but complete control over the nomination process too.I still can’t say what, exactly, they were so afraid of. Only that they were very afraid. That anyone ever thought the PLA might be deployed is glimpse into how deep and dark they think the abyss is. They built the dam higher, but only a fool would think it’s stronger.

There are no successful autocracies, there are only autocracies that have yet to ‘release’ and collapse or backtrack into democratization by legitimizing the messy politics of contention (exploitation and reorganization). The cost of permanent suppression (Late K) is too high for any state to permanently bear. Mubarak, Qaddafi, and the Soviets had absolute power until, one day, they had none. The people are suppressed until, one day, they occupy your doorstep. It is wiser not to suppress them for long in the first place. 

We need not revert to Chang-style ‘coming collapse of China’ to note that dictatorship over one and a half billion people is not a viable long-term proposition. Moving deeper into a Late K phase doesn’t mean a collapse is inevitable but it does increase its likelihood by making ‘release’ a natural evolution. Moving in the opposition direct, away from conservation, means moving towards the sort political reorganization that would includes words like ‘competitive,’ ‘open’, and ‘transparent.’ It would allow political exploitation by actors who are not Party members. It would mean a politics where the Party lets itself lose more often. This reorganization doesn’t have to mean parliamentry politics, voting, and legal recognition of political rights – though that seems to be the most common script.


  1. Hanfeizi said:

    Democracy is not a workable long term solution for a state of 1.4 billion people, either, or even a federal republic of 300 million. It’s amazing to me to see democratic triumphalism as the US, UK and EU are slowly collapsing into decadence and are unlikely to see their democratic institutions survive the century.

    Have you read any of the work of Shanghai-based political philosopher Nick Land? It would be worth doing. Here’s the place to start:

    December 22, 2014
  2. mpr said:

    [just leaving this note so I can sign up to ‘new posts via email.’ There’s nowhere else on the site to do so. Huh.]

    December 26, 2014
  3. […] This has an ongoing intellectual journey for me. As one might note from the small level of writing output over the past year, it has also become a solitary journey as the movement splintered and arguably died. Revolutions, we are told, have a tendency to devour their own.  I should thank Krastev for the writing prompt in the form of new terms, models, and trends. One of the issues I addressed in the wake of the Umbrella Movement was the fundamental unsustainability of de-democratization. Perhaps too boldy, I argued that “there are no successful autocracies.” […]

    November 13, 2015

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