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China’s Unknown Political Future (September 2015): Home

By Xiaofei Li


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Choice (volume 53 | number 1).


China is an intriguing case for students and scholars; it is a communist regime running atop a capitalist economy, and no one knows in which direction China is heading.  On the one hand, China needs capitalist markets to make its economy more efficient, which paradoxically jeopardizes the political foundation of the Chinese government.  On the other hand, China’s severe noneconomic and social problems are preventing the government from fully liberalizing the economy.  China is now apparently dangling between these two dilemmas.  Faced with this situation, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is trying to prolong its tenure.  From this perspective, China is currently at a crossroad.

Some China watchers see one clear picture—the CCP is losing legitimacy and must make serious reforms, or it will be replaced.  Other observers see a more complex picture—China is still formally authoritarian, and its political system has evolved in a complex way that eludes simple characterization.  An important reason for disagreements among analysts is the wide-ranging differences in economy, society, and politics that exist simultaneously across contemporary China.

Although most China specialists agree that China has made stellar progress in its economic development over the past thirty-five years, the CCP’s legitimacy, as Vivienne Shue explains, is not staked on simple economic performance.  Societal confirmation of a regime’s right to rule is derived from multiple sources.  For example, the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption initiative aims to improve the legitimacy of the CCP among his fellow Chinese.  However, the campaign-like feel to these initiatives suggests that once a leader’s attention shifts, enforcement will wane.  Hence, researchers who paint today’s China with a palette of white and black are less likely to capture a true image than those who use a wide range of tones and shades.

The focus of this bibliographic essay is on recent books that offer intelligent socioeconomic and political analysis and not fervent imagination.  Implicit in these selections is the idea that looking into China’s future may be difficult and risky, but these selections provide a necessary lens for a better-informed foreign policy.  The question of which and to what extent contextual factors and operative variables are shaping China’s future is almost impossible to answer with certainty.  Nonetheless, this essay attempts to sort out these complex forces affecting China’s developmental trajectory.  The books reviewed here address these issues from political, social, economic, biophysical, and international relations perspectives.  Following these lines, the essay is divided into seven sections: China and Political Reform/Democratization; Identity, Value, and Morality in China; Chinese Environment; Pessimistic to Optimistic Outlooks on China’s Future; China and the World; Other Factors Influencing China’s Future; and Collections of Diverse Essays.

Xiaofei Li, PhD, is an associate professor of political science at York College of Pennsylvania.  She can be contacted at