In This Review
The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China

The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China

By Susan L. Shirk

University of California Press, 1993, 399 pp.

A political scientist seeks to explain Deng Xiaoping's success and Mikhail Gorbachev's failure in reforming a communist economy by focusing on the political institutions that blocked reform in the U.S.S.R. and facilitated it in China. The key to effective reform, says the author, is that reformist leaders need to develop an effective pro-reform coalition and render ineffective the groups that will lose as a result of the reforms.

Gorbachev tried to develop a reform coalition by opening up the political arena to real competition and thereby developing a counterweight to the anti-reform communist party apparatus. But this was a highly risky strategy that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet communist party.

Deng, on the other hand, chose to retain the traditional communist party state but to use provincial officials as a political counterweight to the conservative center without changing the basic rules of the game. This strategy was facilitated by the fact that the Chinese communist political system, although structurally similar to the Soviet one, was more decentralized because of Mao Zedong's previous, deliberate efforts at decentralization.

This is a very suggestive analysis with important implications for the future. It suggests that power in China may increasingly be shifting to the provinces. The author is not sanguine about the future of communism in China. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, she writes, communism was toppled from the top down by a political elite hoping to remove the political obstacles to economic reform. In China, communism may be undone by a real revolution unleashed by the success of economic reform.