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China’s Unknown Political Future (September 2015): China and Political Reform/Democratization

By Xiaofei Li


China and Political Reform/Democratization

What gives Cheng Li’s China’s Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy its enduring power is the significant yet perplexing question it raises: can China continue its growth without political reform?  In this highly stimulating collection, fifteen leading experts examine the prospects for democracy in China.  China’s political transformation, according to Li, is unlikely to follow a linear path.  Possible scenarios, Li suggests, include formation of liberal democracy; democracy with Chinese characteristics; growing regime instability; or a modified authoritarianism modeled on Singapore.  Which road China ultimately takes, Li writes, will depend on the interplay of socioeconomic forces, institutional developments, leadership succession, and demographic trends.

Ethan J. Leib and Baogang He in The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China investigate whether Western “deliberative democracy” can be applied to the Chinese experience by using the theory creatively.  Deliberative democracy is often referred to as an open discovery process, and in its predominant usage today this means expanding the opportunities for citizens to deliberate.  The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China illuminates a wide range of experiments with China’s democratic governance, from elite deliberation to village assemblies and deliberative polls.

In Toward Better Governance in China: An Unconventional Pathway of Political Reform, Baogang Guo and Dennis V. Hickey argue that, rather than the Western “deliberative democracy” or “liberal democracy,” Chinese leaders should promote governance-based reforms, aiming to become a sort of democratic administration or administrative democracy.  This new category of administrative reforms, according to Guo and Hickey, necessitates the reinforcement of governing capacity and functions, greater transparency, and open deliberation and participation.  One of the advantages of substituting the conventional “democratization” with the “improvement of governance,” as Guo and Hickey argue in the book, is that it is less risky than embarking on a full-scale electoral reform.

Joseph Fewsmith’s remarkable book The Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China studies roughly a dozen cases of prominent reform efforts to understand why the incentives that are sufficient to begin reforms are insufficient to continue and deepen them.  Fewsmith believes that the very incentives that drive local officials to respond to their citizens’ needs cut too deeply into the organizational structure of the party.  Fewsmith’s analyses also show that most of these experiments were nondemocratic in the Western sense.  A good example of this is how the effort to promote “consultative democracy” eventually became “consultative authoritarianism.”  This study warns against optimistic hopes that China will gradually evolve into a democracy.

By bringing together a wide spectrum of views, Will China Democratize?, edited by Andrew J. Nathan, Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner, crystallizes the complex forces driving change in China’s regime and society.  As all the essays in this collection show, the questions of whether, when, and how China will democratize are not any easier to answer today, but the answers are more critical for the future of international politics than ever before.

In addition to addressing political reform and democratization, the following books look into China’s future from politically related aspects such as human rights, political leaders, economic reform, the middle class, and the CCP.  In After the Event: Human Rights and Their Future in China, Susan Whitfield brings together some of the leading scholars in human rights to discuss various aspects of China’s human rights record and to speculate on what the future might hold.  Among these specialists, Andrew Nathan sees little hope of substantive political change since new leaders will emerge from the traditional ruling group in post-Deng China.  Equally pessimistic, Liu Binyan, China’s best investigative journalist, writes in his essay, “The Chinese people sacrifice their freedom in return for subsistence.… But within a few years they started to realize that not only were they without freedom but even their basic existence is threatened.”  Liu’s conclusion is despairing: “Chinese either accept their misery or passively resist it as the number of political prisoners remains large, the gulag extensive, and the lack of due process and other legal safeguards disgraceful.”  Indeed, the essays of Nathan, Liu, and Bonnie McDougall show that China’s intellectuals have opposed tyranny throughout history and have suffered tremendously during various campaigns.  In the 1950s, over 700,000 intellectuals were labeled as “Rightists” in Mao’s Anti-Rightist campaign.  However, thus far intellectuals have demonstrated determined yet discreet resolution.

There are three volumes that describe Chinese leaders and serve as the best source on the character of members of the Chinese elite.  These are China’s Leaders, by Cheng Li; China Renaissance: The Rise of Xi Jinping and the 18th Communist Party Congress, edited by Jonathan Sharp; and Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, by David M. Lampton.

Li’s book provides amazing biographical data and information about the individuals who assumed top leadership positions in the Hu-Wen administration.  Li evaluates their strengths and weaknesses, life experiences, and political attitudes.  Cheng Li estimates that, given that this generation of leaders has a better understanding of and thus more responsiveness to its peers’ needs and concerns, it will likely contribute to, rather than oppose, democratic development.  Over a decade after the publication of this seasoned work, the prognoses made by Cheng Li have proved partially untenable because the Hu-Wen administration has turned out to be just as reluctant to make political reforms as its predecessors.  Still, a first-rate scholarly work that is impressive in its scope, Li’s book has effectively combined quantitative and qualitative research in a way that provides a clear sense of the generational change under way in contemporary Chinese leadership.

As the CCP installed its new president, Xi Jinping, for a presumably ten-year term in 2013, China Renaissance: The Rise of Xi Jinping and the 18th Communist Party Congress chronicles the leaders who will control China over the next decade.  This book aims to provide the reader with comprehensive insight into Xi and his team, who will be charting that course.

Based on over five hundred interviews, Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xijinping sheds light on how the attitudes and ideas of China’s top leaders have evolved over the past four decades.  In these interviews, China’s rulers explain their strategies for moving the nation forward, share their thoughts on leadership and policy, and discuss the stressful challenges.  This insightful book is one of the most up-to-date books on contemporary China.  Its author, David M. Lampton, describes Chinese leaders vision of the nation’s political future and its global influence.

Guoguang Wu and Helen Lansdowne’s Zhao Ziyang and China’s Political Future features articles from experts on China (e.g., Richard Baum and Xiaonong Cheng)The volume explores whether Zhao’s legacy provides an alternative to the past and how his political legacy is relevant to China’s political development in the future.  The writings collected in this work contribute to the discussion of whether or not China has feasible political alternatives to today’s repressive “market Leninism” and corrupt “state capitalism.”

Cheng Li, in Rediscovering China: Dynamics and Dilemmas of Reform, searches for the meaning of China’s economic reforms for ordinary people.  Cheng Li provides some of the most accessible and fascinating accounts of the daily socioeconomic lives of entrepreneurs, migrant workers, factory managers, taxi drivers, and others he meets on his travels.  The author’s touching depiction and sympathetic analysis of China’s 200 million surplus rural laborers; millions of mostly middle-aged, laid-off urban workers; and the difficult to solve issues that accompany state ownership of enterprises brings to light the huge costs and the negative aspects of reform.  Li’s account corrects some of the “serious misconceptions” in the West about contemporary China.  Therefore, balance and objectivity are strong qualities of this work.  In this regard, Li provides a persuasive account from the perspective of ordinary citizens, a narrative that needs to be taken into serious consideration when evaluating various scenarios for China’s future.

Cheng Li’s other edited book, China’s Emerging Middle Class: Beyond Economic Transformation, contends that the rapid growth of China’s middle class has enormous repercussion for China’s domestic future.  The contributors, from diverse disciplines and different regions, examine the birth and development of China’s middle class from a variety of perspectives.  Ultimately, they all argue that this newly emerged group creates sociopolitical ramifications for China’s political future.

Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China, edited by Kerry Brown and Will Hutton, is an intelligent and accessible description of the CCP.  Brown and Hutton deliver a comprehensive account of party history, explaining its origins and evolution, illuminating its inner workings, and looking at options for its future.  The CCP has played a central role as architect of China’s socioeconomic change and will continue to define China’s future as the party controls the government, courts, media, and military while remaining a deeply secretive body.