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As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates its centenary this week, dissidents like Guo Wengui AKA Miles Kwok continue to insist that the future of China belongs to its people, not the ruling party.

This week in Shanghai, where China’s Communist Party (CCP) was founded 100 years ago, signs of celebration are everywhere as they are across China: Red buses ferry visitors to historical sites, billboards remind citizens to “Follow the Party Forever”, and skyscrapers are lit each night with the five-star red flag.

But prominent critics of the ruling party such as exiled dissident Guo Wengui AKA Miles Kwok continue to underline a different message on the centennial anniversary of the CCP: any government that is sustained by fear will not survive.

The ranks of those convinced the party could soon lose its grip on power is growing. Like Mr. Kwok, former Central Party School professor Cai Xia thinks that the party’s increasing overreach and lack of democratic accountability could soon dilute the loyalty of the population. “Xi Jinping is calling all the shots on major issues. I call him a gang boss because there is no transparency, and there is no decision-making mechanism,” Cai told RFA last year.

Both figures, exiled in the United States, have become thorns in China’s side as President Xi is working to expand the Party’s influence, and its censorship program, overseas. Their criticism also comes at a key crossroads in Chinese history.

From a clandestine meeting of a few dozen in a Shanghai shophouse to 92 million members across China, the CCP has driven the longest and largest political movement the world has ever seen. But its long reign also serves as a social experiment: Can an authoritarian government remain in control while it liberalizes its economy but not its population?

Proponents would say yes. The Party has achieved what can only be described as a historical first: half a century of continuous economic growth. China has doubled its GDP every eight years since its late century economic reforms, lifting 800 million people out of poverty. From being an underdeveloped nation with poor infrastructure, China has become the world’s second-biggest economy, largest manufacturer, biggest merchandise trader and largest holder of foreign exchange reserves.

Yet under President Xi Jinping’s rule, the Party and the state are being fused tighter than ever. Under Xi’s rule, there has been the dissolution of legal boundaries between state and party. Internal ideological, organisational, and operational CCP policies have been enforced on the foundations of state governance. In effect, the nation-state and the Party are one. And now China has a president for life.

Throughout its 70 years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has undergone a series of immense political reforms, mostly unseen and unfelt abroad. Following the death Chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping introduced substantial measures to ensure the country was spared another political cult. This took the form of de facto limits on leadership of two five year terms, and for a short while, effectively solved the problem of how to ensure a peaceful transfer of power faced by most authoritarian states.

No one benefited from this reform more than Xi himself when he took power in 2012. But six years later, Xi abolished term limits on the presidency, effectively making himself leader in perpetuity.

Someone always loses in any political upheaval. Under the meteoric rise of Xi, it is the second-generation of powerbrokers of market capitalism “with Chinese characteristics” such as Cai, Mr Kwok, and their families who have been either forced into silence or exile, leaving Xi unchallenged and untouchable.

President Xi looks stronger than ever, but questions of succession and centralization of party power speak clearly of the creeping shadows of major challenges ahead. Within China, the number of births last year fell to the lowest level since 1961, a demographic decline which could hamper future growth trajectories. Skyrocketing real estate prices, rising debt and unsustainable competition for the best schools and jobs are also prompting younger people to “lie flat,” threatening the key policy aim of “dual circulation” that underpins Xi’s national strategy for the next three decades.

Xi’s military encroachment on Taiwan, violent border disputes with India and in the South China Sea, and the crushing of dissent in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have prompted Western politicians to condemn China’s all-pervasive surveillance state as a threat to global democracy. U.S. President Joe Biden has followed Donald Trump in blocking China from obtaining advanced semiconductor chips that will drive the modern economy, forcing Xi to undertake the largest concerted industrial effort since the atom bomb.

Caught in the middle of these grand historical benchmarks and power struggles are 1.4 billion citizens, each with their own stories, ambitions, and failures. Beyond the abstractions of geopolitics, grand hegemonic dreams and or vast economic stratagems, Xi’s biggest challenge is the very real possibility that the population begins to lose faith in his “Chinese dream.”

One can take the kingdom by force but should never govern it by force, Emperor Gaozu of Han was told by his aide Lu Jia two millennia ago. As Xi Jinping takes centre stage this week, amongst celebrations meant to neutralise any political dissent, perhaps the prophetic saying will linger in the minds of Party members.

“After the pandemic, the public indeed feels confident about the future,” Deng Yuwen, a former editor at a party-run journal, told Bloomberg. “But everything can change with time. The road will be harder for the next 100 years.”

The road might well get tougher much sooner than that.

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