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The End of Reform in China

Authoritarian Adaptation Hits a Wall

Mad in China: a labor protest in Beijing, January 2013 Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

Since the start of its post-Mao reforms in the late 1970s, the communist regime in China has repeatedly defied predictions of its impending demise. The key to its success lies in what one might call “authoritarian adaptation”—the use of policy reforms to substitute for fundamental institutional change. Under Deng Xiaoping, this meant reforming agriculture and unleashing entrepreneurship. Under Jiang Zemin, it meant officially enshrining a market economy, reforming state-owned enterprises, and joining the World Trade Organization. Under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, it meant reforming social security. Many expect yet another round of sweeping reforms under Xi Jinping—but they may be disappointed.

The need for further reforms still exists, due to widespread corruption, rising inequality, slowing growth, and environmental problems. But the era of authoritarian adaptation is reaching its end, because there is not much potential for further evolution within China’s current authoritarian framework. A self-strengthening equilibrium

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