Courtesy Reuters

Present at the Stagnation

In This Review

China's Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy

Harvard University Press, 2006
306 pp. $45.00

Is China's Development Stalled?

Minxin Pei thinks that China's transition from communism to democracy is stalled. Pei, a senior associate and the director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, supports his view by pointing to China's lack of government accountability, weak administrative institutions, and widespread corruption and repression. His description of these problems is accurate, but his interpretation of their import is questionable.

Since the death of the reform pioneer Deng Xiaoping, in 1997, most China experts have subscribed to one of three main theories about the future of China's government: that it will collapse, democratize, or remain authoritarian. Gordon Chang argued for the first view in his 2001 book, The Coming Collapse of China. Chang's list of China's problems included most of those Pei discusses as well as others, such as subversive religious sects, resentful ethnic minorities, budget deficits, and job losses expected to follow from the country's accession to the World Trade Organization. Based on his experiences as a lawyer in Shanghai, where he witnessed lying, cheating, and social decay, Chang predicted that a revolutionary uprising of the disaffected would overthrow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Bruce Gilley laid out the case for the second view, the inevitability of democratization, in his 2004 book, China's Democratic Future. He noted China's liabilities but also stressed its assets, including its century-long tradition of democratic values and its large new middle class. Gilley agreed that the current authoritarian regime is out of sync with the needs of a modern economy and society but argued that the regime's opponents are too weak, divided, and dispersed to overthrow it. Drawing on social science theories about the conditions needed for successful democratization, he predicted that pro-democracy factions in the CCP's leadership and in Chinese society would come together during a future power struggle and, with the help of a largely competent state bureaucracy, set China on the path to a democratic future.

Others (including this author) have put forward a third possibility, resilient

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