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  • Will China Democratize?The Halting Advance of Pluralism
  • Harry Harding (bio)

Early in 1997, it seemed possible that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) might be on the verge of accelerated political reform. In several speeches during the spring, President Jiang Zemin called for further restructuring of the country’s political system. Zhao Ziyang, the former Party general secretary who had fallen from power during the Tiananmen Square crisis, reportedly asked the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for a favorable reassessment of the massive popular protests of 1989. Some intellectuals, sensing a more hospitable climate for political reform, submitted petitions calling for direct elections of provincial and national leaders, the freedom to demonstrate, the right to strike, and the rehabilitation of Zhao Ziyang.

In the end, however, the Fifteenth Party Congress meeting in September 1997 did little to fulfill those expectations. Jiang Zemin’s political report announced neither new measures for political restructuring nor an acceleration of ongoing political reforms. Instead, spokesmen emphasized that the CCP would not adopt Western models of democracy, or revise its assessment of Tiananmen.

Moreover, the chairman of China’s national legislature, Qiao Shi, was completely removed from the central party leadership, losing both his position in the Politburo and his seat on the Central Committee. Qiao was said to be not only a rival of Jiang Zemin, but also a proponent of more rapid and thoroughgoing political reform. If those reports are accurate, Qiao became the third major leader in the post-Mao era—following Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang—to lose power for endorsing political liberalization. [End Page 11]

These developments reinforced the conventional wisdom that China is a “market-Leninist” society that is pursuing economic reform while resisting political change. In fact, this cliché oversimplifies a much more complex reality. Although the Fifteenth Party Congress made no dramatic new decisions on China’s political reform, it also did nothing to reverse some important developments that have been slowly but steadily transforming the character of Chinese politics over the past two decades:

  • • The principal objective of the CCP is now to promote economic modernization, not to foster continual class struggle, as was the case during the Maoist era.

  • • Official doctrine no longer motivates many citizens. The legitimacy of the political system therefore depends largely on economic performance, supplemented by a growing popular nationalism. Nor does doctrine guide many policy decisions in today’s China. The most important areas where ideology is still invoked are to defend CCP leadership in politics and state ownership of major industry.

  • • The governing elite is more technocratic and more civilian in character. More and more officials have college educations, albeit primarily as engineers. Fewer and fewer seats in the Politburo and the Central Committee, let alone in the State Council, are occupied by the military.

  • • Alternative policy options are formulated by the bureaucracy, with some input from specialists in research institutions and universities. The options generally reflect a preference for cautious, pragmatic, and incremental approaches to policy reform, rather than utopian efforts to promote radical change.

  • • The legal system is steadily developing. Not only does the state govern through the adoption and implementation of laws and regulations, but those laws are beginning to constrain state behavior. Even the highest officials are subject to limited terms of office. Citizens are suing the state for malfeasance. Courts are occasionally overturning the recommendations of state prosecutors.

  • • Meaningful elections are becoming common in rural areas. For the first time, elections are being held to executive positions on village councils as well as to legislative bodies at higher levels. In many places, these elections appear to be more competitive, and the process of nomination less tightly controlled by the party, than was originally anticipated.

  • • Legislatures have become more active, particularly at the provincial and national levels. Legislatures meet on more regular schedules, and the National People’s Congress has a more elaborate committee and staff structure. Occasionally, legislatures reject party nominees to executive positions, and delay or modify proposed legislation. But legislators at higher levels are still nominees of the party, and are still indirectly elected. [End Page 12]

  • • China has experienced a considerable growth of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly professional associations and...