Delegates fill their places in Beijing's Great Hall of the People during the opening session of the National People's Congress, Beijing, China, 1997.
Paul Barker / Reuters


A key factor influencing America's China policy and dividing American opinions is the evolution of the Chinese political system. Critics of the Clinton administration's China policy argue that, despite two decades of market reforms, the Chinese political system has not only remained repressive and undemocratic but has become a threat to the world's democracies. Pointing to Beijing's political repression, religious persecution, alleged proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, and unfair trade practices, they call for a hard-line response.

China's refusal to make substantive concessions on human rights has made it difficult for the administration to defend its stance. Clinton has been unable to offer evidence that engagement has yielded results on human rights, nor has he made a persuasive case that the Chinese political system is evolving in a more open direction. The administration's defense that current China policy is in the United States' long-term strategic interests has proved a poor match for ideological and passionate attacks from members of Congress and the media. Daily headlines and routine allegations of Beijing's misdeeds have battered the policy.

A major cause of the raging debate on U.S. China policy is lack of understanding of the profound political changes in China over the last two decades. In the past, ignorance of Chinese political realities has led to erroneous assessments of China's prospects, and it is now endangering China policy in Clinton's second term. As Beijing's third-generation leaders, exemplified by President Jiang Zemin, have fully assumed power, the United States must reexamine the Chinese political system and develop a more realistic evaluation of its potential for progress.

In American public discourse, political reform has a narrow meaning: democratization. American politicians and news media measure the progress of political reform in other countries against a single yardstick-the holding of free and open elections. But while democratization may be one element of reform, it is not the only one, especially in countries lacking the most rudimentary institutions of governance.

Both in the West and in developing countries, history shows that political reform has three essential components: establishment of norms governing elite politics; restructuring of basic institutions governing relations among parts of the state, such as the division of power among the government's different branches; and strengthening of the institutions of political participation. Countries that follow that sequence are also better bets to consolidate reform and to experience less instability because the success of one reform makes the next more likely.

The Chinese political system Deng Xiaoping inherited in 1978 resembled a Hobbesian world. No norms governed elite politics. Its key governmental institutions, especially the legal system and the bureaucracy, had been seriously damaged by the economic and political turmoil of the Great Leap Forward of 1958 and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. There were no institutions of political participation; under Mao Zedong, mass political campaigns and mob violence had been the main forms of participation. Deng was faced with rebuilding China's wrecked political system and reforming its backward economy at the same time.


Today, two decades after Deng started his reforms, most observers view the Deng era as a period of rapid economic reform without commensurate political-especially democratic-reform. But several important political reforms began during those years. Deng's leadership saw progress in the re-establishment of norms governing elite politics as well as tentative steps toward restructuring the institutions of the Chinese state, despite the absence of democratization.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), especially its elite, was badly bruised by Mao's dictatorial rule. Soon after Deng consolidated his power, one of his top priorities was to restore order to the party. A three-time victim of the power struggle, Deng had a keen understanding of the personal insecurity of the ruling elite. In systems such as Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China, even at the highest levels, defeat in a power struggle carried an infinite price. Elite politics was characterized by ferocity and intrigue, as rivals would rather risk all than lose all. Deng appeared to understand that no amount of reform could immunize an authoritarian ruling party from internal strife in the absence of an open and competitive succession process. His efforts focused instead on ensuring a minimum level of personal security for the ruling elite so that defeat would be less dire. The written rules regulating intraparty politics were spelled out in a landmark document entitled Some Principles on the Party's Internal Politics in February 1980, and provided some basic rights for CCP members. It is difficult to determine whether these rights were protected in practice, but there is evidence that elite politics in the Deng era became "kinder and gentler."

Two of Deng's successors, Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, fell in power struggles, but the effects of their falls were cushioned. Their personal security and material privileges were protected. Nearly all the losers were eased out of their posts to lessen the impact on the regime's stability. None of the power struggles led to a massive internal purge like those under Mao. Rather, the victors co-opted most of the followers of the defeated leaders.

Another significant reform implemented under Deng's rule was the mandatory retirement of party and government officials. Although China's term limits have attracted little attention abroad, they have probably had the most far-reaching effect of any reform on the composition and outlook of the ruling elite. Beginning in 1982, the retirement age of ministers, provincial party secretaries, and governors was set at 65 and their deputies' at 60. A two-term limit has also been imposed on all party and government positions. As it was designed to do, the combination of a strict retirement age and the two-term limit has prevented the perpetuation of individuals' power and accelerated the ascent of the next generation. Almost instantly, it transformed a ruling elite dominated by poorly educated, aging revolutionaries into one composed mostly of middle-aged technocrats.

Until 1982, the average age of ministers and vice ministers in the State Council was 64. Only 37 percent of the members were college-educated. After implementation of the mandatory retirement system in late 1982, the average age of ministers and vice ministers dropped to 58, and 52 percent were college-educated. The membership of the Central Committee has also reflected the impact of the mandatory retirement system (see Table 1). In 15 years, the members' average age declined from 59 to 56, while the proportion of college-educated members rose from 55 to 92 percent. The ruling elite in Chinese provinces underwent a similar transformation (see Table 2). In 1982, the average age of provincial party secretaries and governors was 62; it was cut to 55 in 1983 and has remained under 55 ever since. During the same period, the proportion of college-educated provincial leaders rose from 20 percent in 1982 to 79 percent in 1996.

The data in Tables 1 and 2 are evidence that the mandatory retirement system is working. It will likely prevent the ossification of the ruling elite and the emergence of personal fiefdoms. The relatively high rate of elite turnover in China under Deng was in sharp contrast to the former Soviet Union, especially under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, whose policy of "stability of cadres" caused political and economic stagnation in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Table 3 compares the rate of reelection for full members of the Central Committees of the Chinese Communist Party under Deng and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Brezhnev.

In the latter, between 80-89 percent were reelected at each party congress. In fact, the former Soviet Union did not have a similar mandatory retirement system until Mikhail Gorbachev established one in June 1988, which set the retirement age at 70. In China, only about half the full members of the CCP Central Committee could expect reelection at a party congress.

Deng's mandatory retirement system is also a subtle mechanism to reduce intra-regime conflict. As he pointed out in the early 1980s, one of the party's key mistakes in the 1950s was its failure to establish a mandatory retirement system. The CCP and the government were clogged with first-generation revolutionaries in their late fifties who were unwilling to give up power and frustrated the political ambitions of younger leaders. A victim of the Cultural Revolution, Deng witnessed Mao's exploitation of younger elites' frustration for his own advantage. Deng's mandatory retirement age made promotion more predictable for the young and ambitious, reducing their incentive to engage in political conspiracies to advance their careers.

Mandatory retirement has also homogenized the elite. The combination of a college education and age limits has created a ruling elite with a similar social experience and political outlook. Debilitating generational conflict-a regular feature of Mao's regime-has all but disappeared. Gone, too, is the bitter ideological debate that plagued Chinese politics in the early 1980s.

Deng took other steps to manage conflict at the top. To prevent the rise of ideologues on the left and the right, Deng adopted limited competition for party offices. Introduced in 1987 under the pretense of broadening intraparty democracy, the reform mandated that the number of candidates for delegate to the party congress exceed the number of positions by 20 percent. Likewise, the number of candidates for full membership and candidate membership in the Central Committee must exceed the number of slots by 5 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

While these measures had a negligible effect on intraparty democracy, they prevented the rise of radical liberals and conservatives within the CCP. The 5 to 20 percent of candidates who fail to get elected or reelected are usually controversial figures. An unintended consequence was the failure of most children of the first-generation leaders (known as the "princelings") to get elected to the party congress or become eligible for membership on the Central Committee. Once feared to be sure successors to their parents' power, the "princelings" disappeared as a political force in the mid-1990s. Deng's reforms also appear to have contributed to the recent stable transition of power from Deng's generation to Jiang's group. The post-Deng ruling elite seemed able to compromise on key policy and personnel matters, and a widely anticipated power struggle failed to materialize.



While many communist party leaders who had experienced personal tragedies under Mao shared an interest in rewriting party rules to prevent the rise of another dictator, there was little agreement on how to restructure the state without reducing the power of the CCP. Political reforms at this level were technically complex and generated conflicts with vested interests within the government. Nevertheless, such reforms were urgently needed with China's dual transition to a less centralized political system and from a command to a market economy. Both transitions required a redefinition of power among the parts of the state. Without such a recasting of roles (preferably codified in the constitution), political decentralization would inevitably lead to increasing friction within the state apparatus, while market-oriented reforms would eventually encounter the institutional bottleneck of the old political system.

The challenges of political reform facing the post-Mao Chinese leaders were unfamiliar to Western industrial democracies. In the West, the constitutional framework and political institutions conducive to the development of an industrial market economy had been established before economic takeoff. The clear division of power among the different parts of the state increased the security of property and enabled the enforcement of contracts. Moreover, the West's economic climb proceeded slowly, allowing its countries' political systems time to make institutional adjustments. This was not true for China. The Chinese political system at the close of the 1970s lacked the necessary institutions for a market economy, such as the rule of law and a clear definition of power within the state. Unlike the West, China faced the challenge of restructuring its political institutions and modernizing its economy simultaneously.

The rapid pace of China's economic development exacerbated friction between the central and provincial governments and between the state and society. A telling index of the scale and speed of socio-economic change in China is the fact that, while it took the United States 47 years to double its per capita income, it took China only 9; in fact, China has quadrupled its per capita income in the last 18 years. It took the United States 50 years to reduce the share of the labor force engaged in agriculture from 70 percent to 50 percent; China accomplished the same change in 17 years. But behind these successes lie massive socioeconomic dislocation, a rapid shift in values and beliefs, and mounting pressures on the political system to tackle new problems that would overwhelm polities with more mature institutions.

Facing the dilemma of maintaining political order while promoting economic reform, the Chinese leadership has been trying to muddle through. While proclaiming the supremacy of the CCP, Beijing has permitted limited institutional reforms that, if fully implemented in the future, will have a far-reaching impact on the division of power in China. Two deserve special attention: the gradual strengthening of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, and the extensive reforms to the legal system.



One of the most important political developments of the Deng era was the rise of the National People's Congress (NPC) from a rubber stamp to a potential challenger to the CCP’s monopoly of power. In recent years, the NPC has asserted its prerogatives as China's supreme lawmaking body. Although it has not directly confronted the CCP on key legislative proposals, members of the NPC now sponsor their own bills, actively debate and amend proposed legislation, and occasionally hold up or vote against important bills. Having the power to confirm or reject the CCP’s nominees for senior executives, the NPC recently embarrassed the party by casting a large number of negative votes. During the March 1995 session, a third of the deputies publicly opposed the nomination of a Politburo member for vice premier. Signaling their dissatisfaction with rising crime and corruption, 32 percent of NPC deputies voted against the annual report of the Supreme Court, and 40 percent gave a thumbs-down to the annual report of the supreme procurator in the March 1997 session.

In the provinces, the rift between the legislature and the CCP is more visible in personnel matters. Limited competitive "selections" were introduced in the provinces in 1988, which allowed deputies of provincial people's congresses to nominate their own candidates to compete with the CCP’s choices. Although provincial legislatures routinely confirmed the CCP’s nominees for governorships and vice governorships, deputies in local people's congresses sometimes rejected the nominations of senior provincial officials and chose write-in candidates instead. According to figures from 20 provinces, 15 percent of the write-in candidates were elected to senior provincial positions.

The growing independence of the NPC has given the institution more credibility. A poll in the Far Eastern Economic Review in late 1994 found that citizens increasingly viewed the NPC as a channel for expressing their grievances. When asked whom they would approach to lodge a complaint, 22 percent said the deputies of the People's Congress, an increase from 13 percent in 1988.

The NPC has benefited from the general trends of political evolution under way since the late 1970s. The decentralization of power within the regime allowed the NPC to claim a legitimate role in legislation. The appointment of several political heavyweights as chairmen of its Standing Committee gave the NPC extra bargaining power within ruling circles. The situation is similar in the provinces, as many retired provincial party secretaries and governors assumed the chairmanships of provincial people's congresses. Of the chairmen of the 30 provincial congresses in 1996, nine were former first ccp secretaries, three were former governors, and eleven were deputy ccp secretaries. The rapid growth of the NPC’s permanent professional staff from fewer than 20 in 1978 to more than 2,000 in 1990 has greatly enhanced the institution's technical ability to write legislation.

The profile of the deputies serving the in NPC has changed since 1978 as well. The number of nonparty deputies rose slightly between 1978 and 1993. The average deputy selected in 1993 was relatively young (53 years old) and well educated (69 percent had college degrees). More important, the combined representation by soldiers, peasants, and workers, who provided the base of support for the CCP, declined from almost 62 percent in 1978 to less than 30 percent in 1993. Meanwhile, intellectuals and government officials jumped from 28 percent to 50 percent of the congress, reflecting the enhanced status of professionals and technocrats under Deng.



Another significant development was the set of legal reforms launched by the regime to prevent a repeat of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and lay the legal foundations of a market economy. The NPC passed 175 laws between 1978 and 1994, and local people's congresses enacted another 3,000. On paper, Chinese laws borrow extensively from Western legal doctrines, concepts, procedures, and terminology. Undeterred by the poor enforcement of the law (only half the legal judgments in commercial disputes are enforced), an increasing number of Chinese citizens and businesspeople have turned to the legal system to protect their property and personal rights.

Chinese courts have experienced a rapid rise in three types of cases: commercial litigation over contract disputes, administrative litigation against the government, and civil litigation. From 1986 to 1996, commercial litigation cases increased 387 percent, lawsuits against the government 12,483 percent, and civil lawsuits 212 percent. Judging by opinion polls from the mid-1990s, a relatively strong sense of rights, especially property rights, among the Chinese people appears to be assisting legal reform. In a 1993 poll of 5,455 respondents in six provinces, 78 percent agreed with the statement, "Private property is sacred and must not be violated," and 77 percent disagreed with the statement, "In a lawsuit involving an individual and a collective entity, the judgment should favor the latter." When asked "whether the police could continue to detain a person for the sake of public safety even though they were unable to determine his guilt," 47 percent opposed detention, and only 28 percent supported it.

The legal system will continue to grow as an institutional rival to the CCP. Current trends suggest that limited legal reforms will even accelerate. The implementation of an extensive body of law has not only created an institutional legal framework but has benefited important groups-private entrepreneurs, foreign investors, an expanding middle class-who would likely resist any reversal of the trend.

Another favorable factor is the rapid growth of a professional legal community. The number of lawyers in China rose from 31,000 in 1988 to 90,000 in 1995. Although the 1,625 private law firms in 1995 accounted for only 22 percent of all law firms, their growth in recent years has been impressive, averaging 500 annually in 1994 and 1995 and accounting for about 70 percent of the new law firms formed. Not only does this signal the rising independence of the legal community, but the for-profit nature of these firms may spur them to advocate their clients' rights aggressively.

The legal system is likely to become a critical arena in which the CCP's authority can be indirectly challenged and checked before the initiation of competitive elections. Unlike a competitive election or multiparty system, which would threaten the CCP’s rule, gradual legal reforms pose no immediate danger to the party's power and may even serve some of its short-term interests. But as legal institutions develop, Beijing's program of limited legal reform has the potential to evolve from a system of law into a rule of law.



The most challenging aspect of political reform in post-Mao China was the restructuring of relations between the state and society and the establishment of institutions of democratic participation. Progress in democratic reform was conspicuously lagging, with the exception of semi-open village elections. But relations between the government and its people have changed dramatically. A new social contract seems to have emerged, whose essence is the redefinition of the scope of the state's power and of citizens' freedom. Although never explicitly articulated, the new social contract abolished most curbs on the personal and economic freedom of ordinary citizens in exchange for their tacit acceptance of the CCP’s authority. Although the formula of "personal freedom for CCP authority" was repeatedly challenged by the dissidents and nearly overturned during the nationwide democracy movement in the spring of 1989, it seems to have stuck, at least temporarily, in the 1990s.

The data on political repression are evidence of the enforcement of this contract. In the Deng era, the government significantly reduced its repression while maintaining pressure on a relatively small community of determined dissidents who defied the formula. Although the CCP’s strategic shift from mass to selective repression has produced a dramatic drop in the general level of repression, it has not gained the regime any credit with the international community because its new strategy has targeted the most visible dissidents, such as Wei Jingsheng, who have been embraced by Western media and politicians. Table 4 shows overall trends for political repression in China. The higher the proportion of political prisoners in the jail population, the more severe political repression is assumed to be.

Table 4's data, collected by leading Chinese sociologists from Shaanxi province in northwestern China, show that the Chinese prison system before Deng resembled Stalin's gulags. Between 1953 and 1975, some 26 to 39 percent of the prison inmates were classified as counterrevolutionaries. The percentage of counterrevolutionaries in the national prison population dropped from 13 percent in 1980 to 0.5 percent in 1989. "Counterrevolutionary" crimes were legally abolished last year. Official figures reported that as of early 1997, Chinese jails housed 2,026 inmates convicted of "crimes of endangering national security," representing 0.46 percent of the prison population.



Despite China's notable progress in restoring elite norms, establishing legal institutions, and maintaining a new social contract, its leaders have strongly resisted democratic reforms. This resistance stems from their fear for China as well as for their own positions, and from knowledge of the party's weakness.

Chinese leaders are acutely aware of the present system's fragility. The power and roles of the different parts of the state remain poorly defined, and political institutions designed to resolve conflicts remain inadequate or nonexistent. Opening up the political process to mass democratic participation is viewed as a recipe for chaos.

Judging from the Soviet experience, China's anxiety is not completely unjustified. It is commonly believed that Mikhail Gorbachev's fatal error was starting with political reform instead of economic reform. But this interpretation of the Soviet collapse misses the most important point: Gorbachev's political reform strategy was flawed in itself because he opened up politics to democratic participation before he could implement, let alone consolidate, constitutional reforms that would establish the institutions to govern democratic participation. Thus, the first priority of the political forces his democratic reforms unleashed was not to find common ground within a constitutional framework but to overthrow the existing system. Chinese leaders fear they would risk a Soviet-style collapse if they initiated democratic reforms before reinvigorating current constitutional institutions.

Then, too, Chinese leaders recognize the organizational decline of the CCP. While it is the world's largest political party, with 3.4 million grassroots party cells and 58 million members in 1997, it is hardly the soundest. Politically, the scars of Tiananmen have not healed, and when they do they will challenge the CCP’s internal unity and may force a reassessment of Deng's legacy. The CCP is also governing a society radically different from the one at the end of the Cultural Revolution-a society much less dependent on the state and the party, more open to new values, and less susceptible to traditional ideological appeals.

More important, market reforms have begun to erode the CCP’s organizational integrity in various economic sectors. A top party official admitted in 1994 that 35 percent of the workshops in state-owned enterprises did not have a single CCP member. The party has been unable to establish a significant presence in the emerging private sector. According to a 1994 survey of 3,092 foreign joint ventures or wholly-owned firms in 34 economic development zones, the CCP had set up party cells in only 704 firms. Among the 2.78 million semiprivate township-village enterprises in 1995, the CCP had an organized presence in only 8.6 percent. It was even less successful in penetrating domestically owned private firms. A 1995 survey of 2,500 in Zhejiang province showed that less than one percent had party cells. Among the 70,000 rural joint-stock firms, 77 percent did not have a single CCP member.

The most serious crisis faced by the CCP, however, is the decay of its rural organizations. The dismantling of the people's communes from 1980 to 1982 dealt a severe blow to the CCP in the countryside. On paper, the CCP has 26 million members in 900,000 rural party cells. In reality, the CCP rural organization is in disarray. Official data show that 8 percent of the village party cells "could not function" or "had collapsed" and that 60 percent were "mediocre."

Chinese workers' new mobility and the new labor market have contributed to this decline. Economic liberalization has created unprecedented opportunities for rural residents, while social liberalization has lifted restraints on leaving a job and moving around China. Tight budget constraints have kept the CCP from allocating more resources to its rural organizational infrastructure, making careers inside the party less attractive. Today a village CCP chief is paid 1,000 yuan, about $120, a year. Most young, capable CCP members have left villages for jobs in cities. The ones who remain behind are older, poorly educated, and less knowledgeable about the market economy. Official statistics from 1995 show that only 12 percent of the party village chiefs were under 35 and that half the party members in rural areas were illiterate or had only an elementary school education. A study by the CCP’s Organization Department in Hubei, Anhui, Shanxi, and Qinghai provinces in 1995 showed that a large majority of CCP village chiefs were old-fashioned farmers incapable of leading villagers in a market economy.

The CCP’s decline is a leading source of tension in rural areas. If it continues, it will further reduce the party's ability to secure the support of the peasantry, and therefore to govern. Already it has been blamed for widespread corruption, lawlessness, and disputes between the party and the peasants. Official surveys in 1995 in the less-developed provinces Guizhou and Sichuan reported that relationships between local officials and the masses were "tense" and "relatively tense" in 60 to 70 percent of the counties and districts. In numerous instances, angry peasants have murdered local officials or burned their houses. In the short run, the CCP’s decay in the villages makes it harder for it to govern. The ruling party in fast-growing authoritarian regimes must establish a solid base of support among conservative peasants and mobilize them to counter the democratic opposition in urban areas, especially during semi-competitive elections. Reliable rural support gives the party considerable security and obviates the need to resort to brute force against the opposition. In the long run, the CCP’s lack of rural support will make it difficult for it to manage democratic reforms.

Thus the Chinese leadership will continue to resist democracy. Their top priority is to strengthen the party and continue cautious political reforms that will enhance the state's ability to manage the challenges created by China's rapid economic development. Beijing is more likely to push reforms that will improve China's legal and representative institutions. Recent changes in Beijing suggest that its leaders may be moving in that direction. President Jiang Zemin's recent proclamation on "rule according to law" may indicate the leadership's commitment to legal reform. The tax system implemented in 1994 ushered in a new era of relations between the central government and the provinces. Additional economic initiatives, such as integration of the national market, privatization of state-owned enterprises, health care programs, pensions, and welfare reforms, are expected to define this relationship further.

But the acceleration of political reform should not be expected to result in a rapid expansion of democratic participation. Until Chinese leaders feel confident about the durability of their political system, they are unlikely to open it to popular participation. In the meantime, they may initiate minor democratic experiments at the grassroots level, such as the expansion of semi-open elections to small towns.

Such small steps toward democratization will not impress American critics. Even though a U.S. policy of engagement will be the most critical external factor for China's political reform, the Clinton administration and its successors will continue to have great difficulty convincing the public that their policy is producing the desired effects on China's political evolution.


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  • Minxin Pei is Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union.
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