Flat White

When will China’s brittle autocracy break?

5 December 2019

7:48 PM

5 December 2019

7:48 PM

You don’t have to be a China watching political historian to recognise the accuracy of the observation that China has become a “brittle autocracy”, as one of our most gifted Sinologists, Geremie Barme, formerly of the Australian National University, puts it.

Brittle, for course, means hard but liable to break.

Barme was referenced by Greg Sheridan in a Weekend Australian analysis of today’s China and our relationship with it — now and into a dangerous future — last Saturday.

Barme, as Sheridan notes, is of the view that “those Western liberals who over the past 30 years hoped for a gradual liberalisation of China’s polity were not irrational. There was some reform of the legal system, some widening of space for the media, and the Westerners reflected the hopes of Chinese liberals to whom they often spoke. But ‘I was never a believer in that (liberalisation)’, Barme says, ‘because unless you changed some fundamentals it could all be overturned in a moment. Xi has shut down all internal debate and made many rigid proclamations. He’s created a sort of brittle autocracy. Historically such dictatorships don’t do too well.’”

There is an aphorism that goes something like this: the people have more power than they realise, dictators are less powerful than they think. Inside every autocratic power structure is a secret and terrifying nightmare that the people will rise up tomorrow and overthrow the regime.

And hard as it is in executing its brutally oppressive strategy, the Chinese Communist Party is growing alarmed that a tap on its brittleness will shatter the entire structure. Hence the fear of contagion from Hong Kong’s demands of proper freedoms.  Getting harder, ironically enough, exacerbates the problem, increasing the brittleness.

China has been swaggering around the world with wads of cash, buying influence and fealty on the one hand, and stealing technological know-how on the other. The regime demands “repentance” from Western politicians who find its behaviour unacceptable. The use of the notion of repentance is telling: these critics are not just wrong, they are sinful. They offend against the Chinese communist orthodoxy. This is the brittleness on open display.

All it would take to shatter the brittle structure of the Chinese communists’ control is a single citizen standing in front of the tank of submission. It has been done before; it will be done again. The only question is when?

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