China had three revolutions in the twentieth century. The first was the 1911 collapse of the Qing dynasty, and with it, the country’s traditional system of governance. After a protracted period of strife came the second revolution, in 1949, when Mao Zedong and his Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War and inaugurated the People’s Republic of China; Mao’s violent and erratic exercise of power ended only with his death, in 1976.
The third revolution is ongoing, and so far, its results have been much more positive. It began in mid-1977 with the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, who kicked off a decades-long era of unprecedented reform that transformed China’s hived-off economy into a global pacesetter, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and unleashing a massive migration to cities. This revolution has continued through the tenures of Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping.
Of course, the revolution that began with Deng has not been revolutionary in one important sense: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has maintained its monopoly on political power. Yet the cliché that China has experienced economic reform but not political reform in the years since 1977 obscures an important truth: that political reform, as one Chinese politician told me confidentially in 2002, has “taken place quietly and out of view.”
The fact is that China’s central government operates today in an environment fundamentally different, in three key ways, from the one that existed at the beginning of Deng’s tenure. First, individual Chinese leaders have become progressively weaker in relation to both one another and the rest of society. Second, Chinese society, as well as the economy and the bureaucracy, has fractured, multiplying the number of constituencies China’s leaders must respond to, or at least manage. Third, China’s leadership must now confront a population with more resources, in terms of money, talent, and information, than ever before.
For all these reasons, governing China has become even more difficult than it
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