Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, March 18, 2013

China's political future

One of The Economist's editors explains why he (she?) thinks political change is coming to China. How do your students evaluate the arguments?

Thank you, Beverley Clinch (who teaches at the American Nicaraguan School in Managua), for suggesting this article. It should be good for some free response questions.

The old regime and the revolution
FOR some of China’s more than 500m internet users the big news story of the week has not been the long-scheduled one that their country has a new president… Rather it was the unscheduled, unwelcome and unexplained arrival down a river into Shanghai of the putrescent carcasses of thousands of dead pigs, apparently dumped there by farmers upstream. The latest in an endless series of public-health, pollution and corruption scandals, it is hard to think of a more potent (and disgusting) symbol of the view, common among internet users, that, for all its astonishing economic advance, there is something rotten in the state of China, and that change will have to come.

Many think it will. According to Andrew Nathan, an American scholar, “the consensus is stronger than at any time since the 1989 Tiananmen crisis that the resilience of the authoritarian regime in…China is approaching its limits.”…

Ever since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, foreigners have been predicting the demise of one-party rule. Surely a political system designed for a centrally planned economy with virtually no private sector cannot indefinitely survive more or less intact in the vibrant, open new China. In 1989 China went to the brink of revolution… But the party proved far more durable—and popular—than seemed possible in 1989. And as China’s economy soared and the Western democracies floundered, authoritarianism proved more resilient than ever…

But the evolution of Chinese society is eroding some of the bases of party rule. Fear may be diminishing…

“Mass incidents”—protests and demonstrations—proliferate…. The second generation of workers staffing the world’s workshop in eastern China are more ambitious and less docile than their parents. And the urban middle class is growing fast… And much of China’s middle-class seems discontented, furious at the corruption and inequality the party has allowed to flourish, and fed up with poison in their food, asphyxiating filth in their air and dead pigs in their water-supply.

The internet and mobile telephony provide tools for spreading news and anger nationally. The party has to work hard to make sure that they do not also help unite all these atomised grievances into a concerted movement…

Reform, however, does not mean tampering with one-party rule. Rather, as Fu Ying, spokeswoman for the NPC, put it: political reform is “the self-improvement and development of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics”. Put another way, it is about strengthening party rule, not diluting it…

There is a vogue in Chinese intellectual circles for reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1856 book on the French Revolution, “The Old Regime and the Revolution”. The argument that most resonates in China is that old regimes fall to revolutions not when they resist change, but when they attempt reform yet dash the raised expectations they have evoked. If de Tocqueville was right, Mr Xi faces an impossible dilemma: to survive, the party needs to reform; but reform itself may be the biggest danger. Perhaps he will see more fundamental political change as the solution. But then pigs will no longer rot in rivers. They will fly.

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