Paul Barker / Reuters 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.

Is China Democratizing?


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

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