The world is relearning a basic lesson about China: how it fits into international society depends on its internal politics. The ease of relations with China from 1976 to 1989 reflected the end of the Cultural Revolution and a great reduction in domestic repression; problems thereafter grew from the regime crisis following the Tiananmen massacre. As for the rise in tensions today, many of the factors prompting it--China's military modernization and expansion in the South China Sea, for example--clearly have something to do with looming political contention in Beijing after the death of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

What does the future hold? Kenneth Lieberthal ventures an answer toward the end of Governing China. The book is an encyclopedic survey of what political science has learned about the People's Republic of China--about the careers of its leaders, its structures of authority, its policy and power struggles--and in both its impressive scope and judicious flavor recalls How the Soviet Union Is Governed, Jerry F. Hough's revision of Merle Fainsod's classic, How Russia Is Ruled. So it is perhaps worth recalling Hough's prognosis for the U.S.S.R., eminently reasonable in 1979: "Any future evolution is highly likely to retain the framework of the present system in one sense or another."

Lieberthal, similarly, prophesies change for China, but most likely gradual change within existing structures. He expects the state to "employ a range of strategies to fend off challenges from a developing society" and use the security apparatus to crush any unrest. The Communist Party may abandon socialism for nationalism, but it will continue in its preeminent role. The many internal pressures--economic, demographic, and political--whose buildup Lieberthal chronicles will likely be accommodated as the system evolves in directions that can already be discerned. "While uncertainties abound," Lieberthal writes, "it appears that on balance China in the late 1990s will grow more open, decentralized, corrupt, regionally and socially diverse, militarily powerful, and socially tempestuous."

This prognosis may well be correct, and it is certainly favored by many in government and foreign policy circles. But at root it is a linear projection, and these have an intuitive psychological appeal independent of their cogency. It is difficult enough to predict rain when contemplating a clear sky, let alone imagine a day when the red flag will come down in the People's Republic. Yet the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time on December 25, 1991. Precisely because such spectacular shifts have taken place in a dozen countries--and almost took place in China in 1989--it makes sense at least to consider another future for China, one involving change more radical, less orderly, and far more discontinuous than Lieberthal foresees.

This alternative assessment says, in effect, let us for once try to recognize the preconditions for major historical change when they arise, and understand that they have inescapable consequences. Evidence for this approach abounds in Governing China, chapter after chapter of which presents in statistical detail the dramatic economic and social changes Deng Xiaoping's reform policies have wrought. For 20 years China has been growing economically about as fast as any country ever has. Huge cities have sprouted where a decade ago were only rice paddies. Tens of millions of peasants have left the countryside and moved to cities in search of work. Millions more Chinese have acquired modern education and knowledge of the world, so that thought and culture are changing as well. Communism, the ideological cement of the People's Republic, has been discredited.

Two centuries ago analogous developments in Europe set in train a process of change, conflict, and political reconstruction whose repercussions the world still feels. The consequences of Europe's military, industrial, and demographic revolutions have been thoroughly documented. The rise of cities, the spread of literacy and new ideas, and the development of a bourgeoisie were all changes the old order proved incapable of accommodating. Europe's new economy and new society demanded new state structures--with constitutions, legal systems, and citizen participation--and Europe got them, but only at the cost of much turmoil.

This pattern has been repeated wherever and whenever the same fundamental forces have been unleashed. Is it likely that China will be the great historical exception--that in 20 years it will be a vibrant economic giant, full of educated, mobile, and increasingly affluent people who nevertheless tolerate rule by a self-perpetuating politburo and its co-opted friends in society?

If the answer is no, then instead of wondering about succession, as so many pundits do, one should acknowledge that China today faces something far more complex and significant: regime transition. As this is being written, an intense battle is under way in Beijing over which party leaders will seize Deng's mantle. It is a riveting spectacle, but this particular fight will not decide China's future. When the dust settles, the important question will not be who but what. What sort of regime is China heading toward? And what will the consequences be for the world?


If this reasoning is correct, the assumptions about China that Lieberthal articulates and governments around the globe share are at best valid only for the short term and are likely to mislead if pushed further. China future will be very different from China past and even present, and particularly from the China whose workings are most familiar and which Lieberthal describes exhaustively: the People's Republic. Substantial--and not evolutionary or gradual--changes are not only possible but likely. These will influence China's relations with the rest of the world far more than any initiatives or agreements decided on today. The present is transitional, and the United States should start positioning itself now for change (and perhaps influencing it).

The twentieth century provides a sense of the wide range of alternatives. One set of possibilities for China may broadly be termed constitutional. In its last years the Qing Dynasty was becoming a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and cabinet. The Republic of China that followed was authoritarian but also saw a remarkable series of parliamentary and constitutional initiatives. Eleven constitutions or draft constitutions were proposed or adopted between 1911 and 1949. The current democratic government in Taiwan operates under the all-Chinese constitution of 1946, with amendments. Difficult as it has been to implement, the idea of constitutionalism continues to have legitimacy in Chinese minds, so that even the People's Republic has felt the need for a basic document, successively adopting five constitutions, the most recent in 1982.

At present, of course, the constitution is a sham. A small group of powerful men, as Lieberthal explains in his illuminating chapters on "inside" and "outside" views of government, handles the real business of ruling China. But Zhou Enlai 20 years ago drew up plans for some reconstitutionalization of rule after Mao's long extralegal reign (though Zhou died before Mao, so they came to nothing). Similar calls come today from the National People's Congress, China's quasi parliament, as Deng's long and equally extralegal rule draws to a close. In fact, generational change may force the government to pay more attention to the rules it has set for itself. With the last of the Long March elders departing from the scene, the strongman solution becomes impractical because no one fully qualifies for the role.

This is not to say that no one will try to become strongman--which brings up a second set of possibilities for the decades ahead. Chinese history this century reveals a pattern of attempts to recentralize authority in the vast and diverse land. Such was the fundamental policy of Yuan Shikai, the first post-dynastic military dictator, who seized power from parliament and ruled from 1912 to 1916, as well as of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party. After 1949 the People's Republic could proudly claim to have achieved this goal. Until the late 1970s the center, or zhongyang, counted for nearly everything (though Lieberthal's discussion shows that the reverse is true almost everywhere in China now). Someone in the center in the years to come could decide that enough is enough, the fractious country must be pulled back together, by force if necessary.

But as Hu Shih, perhaps twentieth-century China's greatest scholar, argued in an important essay, it is precisely when such attempts are made that China's unity has been most imperiled. China is a great civilization, and the most enduring of human historical units. But its inherent unity depends on a good deal of flexibility and local autonomy; apply too much centralizing pressure and the strain will cause China to begin to split. Thus in the 1920s more than a decade of regionally based warlordism and warfare followed Yuan's centralized rule.

Lieberthal mentions the precedent but does not make clear the logic driving it: a once-coherent ruling elite proves unable to reconstitute itself under a new leader after the strongman's death, and its members begin quarreling among themselves, first employing political and parliamentary maneuvers but then cautiously reaching for military means as a way to decision. Nor does he note that this is almost identical to the intraparty politics of the People's Republic as his book describes it--the same personal disagreements, the same attempts to resolve them through alliances and bureaucratic intrigue, and the ultimate appeal to force, most recently in the capital bodyguard division's extralegal ousting of Mao's widow and other followers in October 1976. The key difference is that in the People's Republic such intraparty disputes have never led to full-blown civil conflict--though the Cultural Revolution came close, and 1976 could have been more violent had military dispositions been different.


Lieberthal has considerable confidence in the ruling elite's ability to prevent its bitter rivalries from escalating into countrywide conflict. But in the administration of China, disagreements are ubiquitous within the center, between the center and the increasingly wealthy regions, within regions and units, and between rulers and the ruled. Any of these could supply the spark. Suppose, a few years down the line, an increasingly assertive National People's Congress passes laws that conflict with regulations promulgated by the party administration, or the governor of a wealthy southern province refuses to leave his post when Beijing tells him to. Each side might use its connections in the security apparatus and the military and among the regional authorities to get its way. Resolution might come, but it might not. Unanticipated escalation could even lead to civil war.

No less a figure than Deng Xiaoping prophesied, when Mao asked him in 1973 about the future, that "warlords would emerge and the whole country would sink into chaos"--an answer Mao evidently considered realistic. Strong legitimate political institutions are the best bulwark against such chaos, but Deng when he became ruler did nothing to create such structures. Instead he seems to have believed, against all historical precedent, that economic development plus repression, as at Tiananmen, could work.

Mention of Tiananmen brings up another set of possibilities, involving mass discontent pitting society against regime, as opposed to discord among the elite. It is true that many in China believe, with some reason, that the young leaders and students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 misjudged their actions and helped bring about an unnecessary disaster. But that does not mean they endorse the government crackdown; feeling is on the side of liberalization. The memory of the nationwide democracy demonstrations is alive, and the grievances that prompted them are still raw. The gap between state and society has only widened since 1989. The people have grown wealthier, better informed, and more self-sufficient while the government has grown weaker and increasingly reactive.

China in the years ahead will almost certainly see major strikes or mass protests. Noting that the government has been steadily strengthening its internal security forces since 1989, Lieberthal believes any such protests will probably "quickly die down, quelled by the state's repressive regime." But this assumes that the military and the police remain loyal. In fact, the military was deeply divided by the Tiananmen massacre, and individual officers and men often feel as tied to society as to the state. Called on to save an unpopular government in another Tiananmen, the People's Liberation Army is likely to split, or to join the people in getting rid of the politicians who gave the order.


Should any of these eventualities come to pass, the challenges to policy for the United States and other countries will be very different from those to which observers have become accustomed. Hitherto the question has been how to deal with a China that speaks more or less with one voice. The United States has not been asked to support one Chinese leader against another (although reluctance to commit to a transitional President Jiang Zemin is part of the reason he has not been invited to visit Washington). It has not had to take a position on China's political form (although American sympathies during the democracy movement were clear, and would appear again under similar circumstances). Nor has it had to deal with prolonged unrest or civil conflict in China.

The root problem in all these scenarios is the antidemocratic character of the Chinese government and its consequent inability to deal with rapid, large-scale change. This will not be solved by economic growth; in fact, growth will only exacerbate it. Nor can a self-perpetuating leadership, no matter how adept at managing its internal disagreements and co-opting emerging social forces, indefinitely postpone the reckoning the country faces.

Finally, the new stress on an assertive nationalism that Lieberthal correctly identifies in China today will not finesse the problem of how China is governed. The Communist Party increasingly presents itself not as it had from its founding--as an iconoclastic force at war with the past and promoting social revolution--but as the guardian of tradition and vanguard of Chinese national feeling. Lieberthal explains this remarkable shift as a response to economic development; since prosperity alone cannot guarantee stability, the country "will need something more as a cohesive force, and most likely China's leaders will turn to some form of nationalism to meet this need."

But the stress on nationalism is at least as much an attempt to head off demands for popular participation, and the government has intensified its efforts in this quarter since crushing the democracy movement in 1989. Today the initiative, formalized as the Campaign for Patriotic Education, cannot be missed. It gives people restoration of the Great Wall, rituals honoring Confucius, new patriotic schoolbooks, and renewed emphasis on the evils of imperialism, particularly in connection with the return of Hong Kong.

Though the Chinese undoubtedly love their country, this does not translate smoothly into love of government, as rulers this century have discovered. Passionate national feeling begets criticism as often as loyalty, and the current leadership summons up the spirits of nationalism at its own risk. And no amount of solemn flag-raising ceremonies and patriotic education in the schools can obscure the need for genuine institutional change.

If such change is resisted, the increasingly tense situation inside China will probably be reflected in more turbulent foreign relations, as indeed is already happening. Should autocracy entrench itself in China for another decade or two, neighboring states, many of which are democratic, will find that they have less in common with China. Investment flows will shift. Arms races will begin (in fact, some have already begun).

On the other hand, it is possible that China will experience liberalization and progress, however chaotic, toward constitutional rule and legality. Most of the potential foreign policy problems that have been mentioned here are connected with domestic repression: the hard line abroad corresponds to the hard line domestically. But a Chinese government that had been elected would know itself to be legitimate and likely possess the confidence and flexibility necessary to resolve such issues and others, even the Taiwan and Tibet questions.

Lieberthal's book does not claim to be a guide to the future; rather, it is a comprehensive synthesis of Western scholarship on the P.R.C. But as Lieberthal notes, China today is an amalgam of aspects of Chinese tradition, Stalinism, and the East Asian economic model as found in places like Taiwan and Singapore. This amalgam, created by revolution, is being tested by the forces unleashed by reform. The result is a China that resembles less and less the People's Republic that it has been since 1949.

China, after all, is not the regime created by Mao and partly dismantled by Deng. It is a civilization, even a world. Like certain other great civilizations--Italy, France, and Russia come to mind--it has had great difficulty finding its political form, and the matter is open even today. How China is governed is an important topic. Even more important, however, is how it will be governed, and to this the best answer is, probably very differently.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Arthur Waldron teaches strategy at the Naval War College and East Asian studies at Brown University, and is an Associate of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University. His most recent book is From War to Nationalism: China's Turning Point, 1924-25 (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  • More By Arthur Waldron