Will China Democratize?Disruption without Disintegration
Given the pace of change in our time, it is very difficult to make predictions about what will happen ten years hence. If forced to hazard a judgment, I would predict that a decade from now there will still be a state calling itself the People’s Republic of China. More likely than not, however, it will no longer be governed solely by the Chinese Communist Party. In other words, I think that there is going to be significant change, even disruptive change, but probably not disintegrative change.
While it would be unrealistic to expect China’s future pace of economic development to be sustained at recent levels, it is quite likely that China will achieve reasonably impressive economic growth over the next decade. That growth may decelerate, and at some point the economy may even encounter serious difficulties. But in all probability, the overall economic condition of China will continue to improve. For that very reason, however, I envisage some significant discontinuity in the character of China’s political system—though without there necessarily being a dramatic change in the designation or even the external appearance of that political system.
Let me put it differently. I think it is highly unlikely that Communist Party dictatorship and increasing socioeconomic pluralism can long co-exist. Therefore, some significant discontinuities from the current situation are likely. At the same time, the extent of these discontinuities—and particularly their sharp edge—is likely to be dulled by relatively successful and continuing economic progress. In that [End Page 4] context, some tension and conflict between the socioeconomic system and the political system will become inevitable.
Moreover, China is likely to be thrown increasingly into the global community simply through the impact of international communications. I am told that there are now several million satellite dishes in China capable of receiving television programs from abroad. I am also told that, as of 1997, some one hundred thousand Chinese actively participate in the Internet. There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese traveling or studying abroad. In brief, communist dogmatism cannot continue to be maintained in its present form.
At some point, the party dictatorship will have to crack, and the party itself will have to share a significant portion of its authority with other social forces in Chinese society. That necessity may create a period of political tensions and acute dislocations. The likely outcome will be a situation in which the Chinese Communist Party, by itself and in its present form, will no longer be able to govern China. I do not think, however, that the changes are likely to be acute or intense enough to result in the overt and dramatic overthrow of the Communist Party and the termination of the People’s Republic of China. Instead, we are likely to witness a process of political change that is much more complex, perhaps in some respects even more difficult, and certainly at times very tense, one that will probably culminate in the present Chinese state continuing in name, but no longer in form and substance.
I do not mean to suggest that the party is going to embrace this kind of change voluntarily. The process that I envisage will involve political unrest or other circumstances that impose upon the party the necessity of change; the party will have to come to an accommodation with these pressures, or else eventually face a revolutionary situation. To some extent, I am betting on the prospect that the Chinese political elite will be intelligent and realistic enough to see that it must make the necessary accommodations.
Of course, the party will have to invent a lot of new ideological formulas to justify these accommodations, but it has already invented plenty to justify the present situation. President Jiang Zemin told me in July 1997 that joint-stock ownership of state industries is permissible according to the thought of Marx and Engels because it is a form of public ownership. He is playing with words to justify ownership by individual stockholders. He and his successors will find other formulas to justify whatever concessions the party is compelled to adopt.
At some point, however, a new source of legitimacy will have to be discovered. It will no longer be derived from some utopian concept of revolution or of a historical end-state defined as communism. This new source is going to be based much more on consent and public sanction. That in turn means that the Communist Party will be sharing power, and not governing by itself.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. National Security Advisor during the Carter administration, is professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The most recent of his many books, The Grand Chessboard, was published in 1997. His comments are based on an interview with the Journal of Democracy conducted on 27 October 1997.