China's Coming Transformation

Courtesy Reuters


Social forces unleashed by China's economic reform over the last 20 years are now driving inexorably toward a fundamental transformation of Chinese politics. Since the suppression of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, China's leaders have struggled to maintain the political status quo, even while pursuing rapid economic reform. The result today is a nonadaptive, brittle state that is unable to cope with an increasingly organized, complex, and robust society. Further efforts to resist political change will only squander the benefits of social and economic dynamism, perpetuate the government's costly battle to contain the populace, drive politics toward increasingly tense domestic confrontation, and ultimately threaten the system with collapse.

Many of today's senior Chinese officials recognize this dilemma but have powerful personal motivations to resist change. The next generation of Chinese leaders, however -- set to take office in 2002-3 -- is both more supportive of reform and less constrained by Tiananmen-era political baggage. These new leaders will likely respond to the dilemma, therefore, by accelerating political liberalization.

This does not imply that China will soon become a Western-style democracy. Rather, the coming steps in reform will likely include measures to legitimize independent social organization, give citizen groups increased input in policymaking (in exchange for some limits on their activities), and develop greater intraparty democracy. These changes will be difficult, and in the near term, they are as likely to throw China into domestic turmoil as they are to create a stable partial democracy.

This coming political reformation is the main event in China, and it has critical implications for Sino-U.S. relations. Events such as the recent collision of a U.S. spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island, the detention of foreign academics in China, or even rhetorical skirmishes across the Taiwan Strait cannot by themselves derail or even significantly delay the forces of change. The event most likely to disrupt the coming reform effort would be the emergence of a clearly adversarial relationship

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