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China Center Speaker Addresses the 'Dictator's Dilemma'

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Repression, legitimation and co-optation are strategies used by nearly all authoritarian regimes to stay in power—including the Chinese Communist Party.

These three topics were the focus of the talk given by Dr. Bruce Dickson on September 28 at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Dickson's visit was sponsored by the school's Center for China-US Cooperation.

As a professor of political science and international affairs and chair of the political science department at George Washington University, Dickson's research and recently published book, "The Dictator's Dilemma," focus on the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) adaptability and ability to stay in power.

Dickson talked about the CCP's use of the tactics mentioned above and also debunked some common misunderstandings of the Chinese political and cultural environment often perpetuated by American and international media outlets.

"I want to share the idea that despite reports of protests and environmental and other kinds of problems, people are still generally supportive of the government," said Dickson. "They want to do things better; they want to do things differently; but they want the government to do those things. They don't want to get rid of the government. That's a side of the story that specialists are familiar with but is otherwise not apparent to people outside the academic world."

According to Dickson, the CCP's use of legitimation can be seen in their invoking of the growth of the Chinese economy. And, for approximately 75 percent of Chinese citizens, personal incomes have increased in the last five years. Despite this, the CCP often perpetuates citizens' fears of the country's instability, offering up the CCP as the only solution to the problem.

Dickson talked about people's reason for joining the CCP. In the 1950's and 60's, he said the main reason Chinese citizens joined the party was purely ideological—to work for communism. Now, recruiters are making trips to college campuses in the hopes of attracting new members. And a lot of college students are joining, not necessarily for ideological reasons, but rather in order to help their career.

The CCP's use of censorship—a topic written about often and extensively by outside media outlets—was something Dickson also discussed. But, as he explained, for the half of the Chinese population who are online, the majority of them say they have never experienced or been affected by censorship.

"He describes an understandable current status of the CCP. It's very close to what I have observed from Taiwan and from what I understand of the current political status quo, especially the repression," said Global Finance, Trade and Economics Integration Master's student Yuhua Audrey Chang. "I've heard a lot about this because we have a lot of exchange students from mainland China and Taiwan and we've talked a lot about this. Most of their reactions on repression and online censorship is very close to what he's described. They either don't really care, or they say 'Oh, I'll just delete what I type,' or 'It's been taken out. I'll just try something else next time.' There's not a very strong opposition in mainland China currently. But when I came to the United States and talked to the students studying here, they have different thoughts. They might be thinking differently about freedom and democracy. I think in 20 or 30 years, when they return to mainland China, they might be a different force that might generate change, silent revolution."

Dickson hopes that his talk and book will appeal to a wider, non-academic audience and that they will gain a different perspective about China.

Dickson's presentation at University of Denver is part of the Center for China-US Cooperation's (CCUSC) Jackson/Ho Forum Series, which seeks to bring scholars, government officials, business leaders and professionals to the University of Denver to speak on issues related to China and U.S.-China relations.

"These are top scholars of China studies and they help us to understand what's going on and to understand the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century between China and the U.S.," said CCUSC's director, Professor Suisheng Zhao. "These types of researchers are very valuable for our community, our students and our faculty members to learn and to understand the complicated issues of China."

International Studies graduate student Jamison Nelson was in attendance at Dickson's presentation and said that he appreciates DU's commitment to providing opportunities for students to see such prestigious speakers.

"The fact that people come here and engage with some of the students here is just insane," said Nelson. "I never had in my undergraduate any experience like this, or you would see it once a semester. It just blows my mind. I love it."