Courtesy Reuters

China's Dilemma

Social Change and Political Reform

In May and June 2010 Chinese workers organized strikes, which spread across factories in southern China. By citing labor law protections passed in 2008, they secured tacit government approval for their labor action and got pay rises and better working conditions from their employers. In August Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao delivered a prominent speech warning that China’s economy and national modernization process would be jeopardized if the country failed to undertake systemic political reform. In October, the jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, one of hundreds of Chinese that signed a 2008 charter calling for constitutional democracy, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Together, these events called attention to the prospects for social and political reform in China.

In fact, there is no indication that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will launch major political reforms in the near term. Wen’s speech did, however, identify China’s central long-term challenge: on the one hand, Chinese society is growing more complex, demanding, and robust; on the other, its authoritarian state remains committed to maintaining a brittle form of social and political control. In a July/August 2001 Foreign Affairs article, “China’s Coming Transformation,” we argued that emerging tensions between China’s state and society would push forward social and political reform because any failure to reform would intensify social conflict, jeopardize economic growth, and undermine the CCP’s ability to govern. At the same time, we warned, China’s transformation could prove to be “longer and more tumultuous than many have expected.”

Since 2001, China’s economy has continued to grow, its per capita income has risen, and its government has taken steps to address social unrest in the countryside by repealing burdensome taxes and investing in rural areas. Beijing has headed off urban unrest by investing in housing, improving public infrastructure, and building a basic social safety net. Nevertheless, many of the tensions we identified in 2001 have grown more pronounced, as China’s political system continues to generate abuse and a wealthier, more capable society seeks

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