A new and younger leadership group taking control of China beginning next year may embark upon a program of significant political reforms amid a booming economy, some experts say.
But others feel that any changes that occur will take place within continued one-party rule.
Late next year and in early 2013, China’s Communist Party will choose and install new leaders.
Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will retire as president and premier, respectively. And many of the members of the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top leadership group, will be replaced by younger men.
Reform-minded Party members may be set to move into positions of power in China, according to Edward Steinfeld, a professor political economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Writing in the July/August 2011 edition of the Boston Review, Steinfeld says, “Even as authoritarian regimes and their supporting institutions remain in place, subtle political shifts may be under way.”
“Such shifts can include recomposition of the ruling establishment (i.e., the ruling party stays in place, but it ends up populated by new kinds of members)."
In his essay, Steinfeld urges caution “about reading too much into immediate political circumstances, such as [China’s] recent crackdown” on political dissent and critics of one-party rule.
In Taiwan and South Korea—now functioning democracies—“brutal crackdowns on dissent were among the last vestiges of authoritarian rule,” Steinfeld writes.
“In contemporary China that could also be true,” Steinfeld says.
Revolution from the top?
Some of China's new leaders may in fact be poised to begin a program of political opening and reforms, thinks China scholar Wu Junhua.
“I anticipate that in the near future—possibly before 2020—China will undergo a political revolution that will transform it from a one-party system to a democracy,” Wu said, speaking last month at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Wu, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center and senior economist at the Tokyo-based Japan Research Institute, added that should this occur, this “revolution” will not come about through a “revolt of the masses.”
“Rather, it will originate from the top within the ruling party, the CCP.”
Wu noted that many in China’s new generation of leaders have studied abroad, and are familiar with the ideals of democracy, such as freedom, equality, and human rights.
These are the right people to initiate political reforms, she said, adding that “China cannot wait another ten years” for change.
'A huge investment'
Speaking in an interview, China scholar Arthur Waldron agreed that in authoritarian states, “a new leadership can, and often has, changed things or reversed things quite dramatically.”
“[But] a huge investment has been made by the Chinese [Communist] Party in a set of ostensible solutions to the problems that they have,” said Waldron, Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The ability of the Chinese authorities to monitor, to censor, to suppress all forms of communication, and to track individuals and so forth, is enormous.”
And China’s leaders, even in the next group taking office, may be reluctant to make way for democratic freedoms as these are understood in the West, Waldron said.
“If you think about the position of the leadership, if they have elections, they’ll probably lose. If they have law courts and objective laws, then they’ll probably be indicted and convicted. If there’s free speech, all of sorts of dirty linen will be exposed on the front pages of the papers.”
Political reform in China will have to be “very carefully thought out,” Waldron said. “And then it will have to be introduced in a kind of uniform way, and in a steady and clearly understood progression.”
"I hope very much that change will come in a deliberate way, and I hope very much that the Party will lead it, because the alternative seems to me among other things to be potentially very bloody."
Even now, the pool from which China’s Communist Party draws its leaders might contain “convinced reformers and democrats” who could act in the future, Waldron said.
“They would carefully conceal their views until they were in a position to do something.”
“But doing something is difficult, because the whole society is basically wired—it’s like a house that’s totally alarmed. Even the ‘owner’ can trip the alarm,” Waldron said.
A Chinese Gorbachev?
Hopes for the emergence someday of a Chinese Gorbachev—the Soviet leader whose reforms brought down Soviet communism—misread China’s present situation, said China scholar Andrew Nathan, also speaking in an interview.
“Gorbachev faced a very different situation, as I understand it,” said Nathan, the Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.
“The [Soviet] economy wasn’t working, the legitimacy of the Party was bankrupt, the foreign policy was failing."
"He came in and he said, ‘This isn’t working.’”
For China’s leaders, though, “things are working in the areas that they care about the most—economic development, China’s ‘peaceful rise,’ foreign policy, and so on.”
Public opinion in China regarding the Party’s performance is “complicated,” Nathan said. “Part of it is, ‘We support the regime because they’re delivering.’”
“And then another big part of public opinion is this idea that there is something fundamentally rotten, and a sense of injustice that seems to be very widespread, and a sense of cynicism and alienation.”
For now, China's new leaders may limit political reforms to more emphasis within the Communist Party itself on 'serving the people's needs,' more emphasis on transparency in government, more emphasis on fighting against corruption, and things of that kind," Nathan said.
"They want to have one-party rule without any competition for power."
Reported by Richard Finney.