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- Political reform has lagged behind economic reform.
- Many promising political reforms have been rolled back, so China is actually less open and democratic today that it was in previous years.
- China’s political system remains authoritarian (and here some would even say totalitarian).
- China is therefore vulnerable to political upheaval in the event of a crisis.
- And because of China’s authoritarian system, U.S.-China relations will also be vulnerable to the human rights issue.
Like most conventional wisdom, these five generalizations are not entirely wrong. But each of them needs to be modified if we are to gain a balanced assessment of the changes in China’s political structure over the thirty years of reform and opening.
1. Political reform has lagged behind economic reform
It is hard to compare the extent of economic reform with the extent of political reform, since they are such different phenomena. But, relative to the ideal types that are most commonly mentioned, it is probably true to say that China has moved farther toward becoming a privatized, marketized, globalized economy than it has moved toward becoming a liberal, pluralistic, democratic political system.
Still, each of these two comparisons should be qualified. First, however extensive it has been, China’s economic reform program has also encountered its limits. The hand of the state remains strong, both as an owner of enterprises and as a regulator of the market. There are still significant restrictions on capital flows in and out of China, and on the ability of foreign firms to participate in strategic sectors of the economy. Small and medium-sized enterprises find it difficult to get access to investment capital, largely because land is publicly owned and cannot be used as collateral for bank loans. Moreover, the global financial crisis has led to some retrogression in some areas, particularly ownership structure (toward more state ownership), the financial system (toward more non-performing loans), and market access (toward greater protection of domestic industry).
Second, despite the limits to political reform, to be discussed later below, there has also been substantial change in the nature of the Chinese politics over the past thirty years. Compared with 1978, when reform began, the Chinese political system is now characterized by:
- More pragmatic and technocratic administration
- Relatively institutionalized systems of political succession
- A far freer society
- A more extensive and effective legal system
- A narrower political spectrum, in which most political debate is over the details of policy rather than the overall course of reform
- Greater consultation with affected interests on specific issues
These changes make the Chinese political system very different than it was in 1978 – certainly more pragmatic and liberal, even if neither pluralistic nor democratic.
2. Many promising reforms have been rolled back
In considering this second proposition, we have to begin by distinguishing between cyclical change and secular change. China is still characterized, as it has been since 1949, by a cyclical pattern of tightening and loosening of political controls: a loosening when the regime feels more confident of public support, and a tightening when it is less so. That tightening is particularly evident with regard to freedom of political organization and expression, but in its extreme form it can take the form of curfews and travel restrictions in order to reduce the possibility of political protest. We have recently seen examples of the latter in the run-ups to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and to the fiftieth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising.
The even larger question is the extent of secular change. Has there actually been a permanent rolling back of any of the reforms summarized above? I would argue that there has not – with one important exception that is particularly sensitive in the United States. There appears to be far less enthusiasm about local elections in China now than there was in the past – and certainly less enthusiasm about extending direct elections beyond the village to higher levels of the political system. The Party’s principal rationale for village elections was to impose greater accountability on local officials from below than could be exerted administratively from above. It did not reflect any philosophical commitment to this particular mechanism as the best means of doing so. The apparent ease with which village leaders can evade that accountability through vote buying and other forms of corruption has significantly eroded support for local elections within the Party’s leadership.
In the end, however, the most important problem facing political reformers in China is not the degree of retrogression, but the lack of forward movement. Recent months have seen the imposition – or, more accurately, the restatement – of the limits on further change in political structure. Top Chinese leaders have explicitly identified, and rejected, all of the key features of pluralistic democracy, including independent political parties competing for power, an independent judiciary, or a fully independent legislature. They have also reiterated the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly over political leadership. None of these limits is new, but their recent reiteration suggests that we should not expect further qualitative changes in China’s political structure any time soon.
3. China therefore remains an authoritarian, or even totalitarian, system
Also some continue to describe it as such, by any reasonable definition of the term China can no longer be considered to be a totalitarian political system, although it was during most of the Maoist period. It does not have any of the organizational characteristics of such a system: a charismatic leader, a powerful ideology, or an effective network of media and mass organizations that can mobilize all members of society in support of the Party’s goals and policies. Even more important, the variety range of opinion and activity in society is evidence that the Party clearly does not exercise total control over either thought or action.
China is, however, an authoritarian system – but the question is, what kind of authoritarian system is it? Here, Western political typologies fail us. They define ideal types – such as democratic and totalitarian systems -- reasonably clearly. But they do not provide much analytical insight or clarity into that far larger set of political systems that fall into neither of those two extreme categories. Authoritarian systems vary considerably one from another, but comparative politics does not offer a commonly accepted set of dimensions along which they do.
Still, let me suggest two dimensions that are particularly important in assessing the state of Chinese politics after thirty years of reform. First, China today is what some call a “soft,” or consultative form of authoritarian system – as opposed to a “harder,” more directive form. China has created several mechanisms by which society can express opinions – through the press, public opinion polls, government consultative procedures, the “blogosphere,” and increasingly through protest (even though leading protest activities can still be risky). The Party is more skeptical about some of these mechanisms (the blogosphere and protest) and more enthusiastic about others (public opinion polls, investigative reporting, and formal consultative mechanisms). But their existence means that China is a far less closed and rigid authoritarian system than it was in the 1980s, let alone in the 1960s and 70s.
Another dimension along which authoritarian systems vary is their coherence. Here, Chinese politics is characterized by a high degree of fragmentation, both vertically between central and local governments and horizontally among different bureaucratic agencies. Indeed, many China specialists use the label “fragmented authoritarianism” to describe the country’s political structure. In addition, China’s administrative system is plagued by increasing corruption as officials seek financial benefits through bribes (accepting payment in exchange for favorable decisions) and graft (acquiring state assets for personal gain). Together, fragmentation and corruption mean that the central authorities can have only limited confidence that their decisions will be faithfully implemented, or that their subordinates will enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary citizens.
4. China is vulnerable to political upheaval in the event of crisis
True, China is vulnerable to political upheaval – but the study of political risk tells us that all political systems are vulnerable in the event of crisis. The only question is the size of the shock that would be needed to trigger that instability.
And, in fact, despite its authoritarian character, and despite the fact that its political institutions are both fragmented and corrupt, China appears to be relatively stable – or at least far more stable than was anticipated by analysts who predicted, after the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989, that the country was on the verge either of democratization or collapse. Indeed, some foreign analysts are now saying that China’s political future is more likely to feature “resilient authoritarianism” than either upheaval or democracy.
There are several factors that seem to be making the Chinese political system so resilient:
- Mechanisms for the expression of grievance, as noted above
- Increasingly effective procedures protests – some accommodative, others repressive -- for responding to them
- Relatively high levels of popular legitimacy, rooted largely in thirty years of sustained economic growth and growing personal freedom, and bolstered by widespread popular nationalism
- A middle class that has been co-opted into the existing political system, and is wary of the consequences of either democratization or “chaos”
- A leadership that has been able to maintain the appearance – and probably the reality – of relative unity
The resilience of the system has been demonstrated by its ability to ride out a number of rather serious shocks, including a stock market collapse (which predated the global financial crisis), outbreaks of communicable disease (especially SARS), the Tibetan riots, the Sichuan earthquake, the current economic downturn, and especially the melamine and other product safety scandals. These were all national (or at least regional) issues – not simply local problems that could be blamed on local officials. And yet none of them has posed a serious challenge to the stability of the Chinese political system.
It seems, then, that it would take either a more powerful shock, or else the gradual erosion of the regime’s resilience, to create the conditions by which China could experience a severe political crisis. A big shock cannot be precluded, but seems unlikely at the moment. The bigger danger is a gradual decline in the legitimacy of the political system if it is unable to manage China’s long list of social and economic contradictions effectively, especially if that decline is accompanied by growing differences of opinion among Chinese leaders over the desirability of further political reform.
5. U.S.-China relations will also be vulnerable to the human rights issue
A political crisis in China would once again produce a big shock to U.S.-China relations, just as the Tiananmen Crisis shook the relationship to its foundations in 1989. And the authoritarian character of Chinese politics does contribute to the mistrust that many Americans feel toward China, and their concern about the consequences of China’s rising power.
Even so, the human rights issue has been pushed to the side, as other issues in the relationship – the financial crisis, climate change, the North Korean nuclear program, energy security, and the like -- have come to the fore. To be sure, there will be relatively mild criticism of China by the U.S. government, particularly in the annual State Department human rights report, and far sharper criticism of China by non-governmental human rights organizations. Particular developments – especially involving Tibet, individual dissidents, and religious organizations, each of which has supporters in the U.S. – may inflame the issue from time to time. But while the human rights issue will remain an irritant in the U.S.-China relationship, it is unlikely to cause a crisis – unless the human rights issue in China itself reaches crisis proportions.
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In short, much of the conventional wisdom about China’s record political reform over the last thirty years is correct. There have been limits to political reform, the system therefore remains authoritarian, it is vulnerable to shock, and U.S.-China relations will not be immune from a serious political crisis in China. But these same generalizations have to be modified to be more fully accurate: there has been considerable political reform, China is a relatively soft and resilient authoritarian system, and it will take a very large shock – or protracted political decay – to destabilize either the U.S.-China relationship or China itself