The world is relearning a basic lesson about China: how it fits into international society depends on its internal politics. The ease of relations with China from 1976 to 1989 reflected the end of the Cultural Revolution and a great reduction in domestic repression; problems thereafter grew from the regime crisis following the Tiananmen massacre. As for the rise in tensions today, many of the factors prompting it--China's military modernization and expansion in the South China Sea, for example--clearly have something to do with looming political contention in Beijing after the death of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
What does the future hold? Kenneth Lieberthal ventures an answer toward the end of Governing China. The book is an encyclopedic survey of what political science has learned about the People's Republic of China--about the careers of its leaders, its structures of authority, its policy and power struggles--and in both its impressive scope and judicious flavor recalls How the Soviet Union Is Governed, Jerry F. Hough's revision of Merle Fainsod's classic, How Russia Is Ruled. So it is perhaps worth recalling Hough's prognosis for the U.S.S.R., eminently reasonable in 1979: "Any future evolution is highly likely to retain the framework of the present system in one sense or another."
Lieberthal, similarly, prophesies change for China, but most likely gradual change within existing structures. He expects the state to "employ a range of strategies to fend off challenges from a developing society" and use the security apparatus to crush any unrest. The Communist Party may abandon socialism for nationalism, but it will continue in its preeminent role. The many internal pressures--economic, demographic, and political--whose buildup Lieberthal chronicles will likely be accommodated as the system evolves in directions that can already be discerned. "While uncertainties abound," Lieberthal writes, "it appears that on balance China in the late 1990s will grow more open, decentralized, corrupt, regionally and socially diverse, militarily powerful, and socially tempestuous."
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