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  • Will China Democratize?“Even Our Caution Must be Hedged”
  • Andrew J. Nathan (bio)

The menu of scholarly scenarios for China’s future has not changed much since China experts started discussing “after Mao, what?” in the late 1960s. The options still consist of no change (a continuing authoritarian status quo), radical change (some form of national breakup), or moderate change (some kind of gradual democratization). As usual with such three-way choices, the extremes are commonly ruled out and the middle emerges as the prognosticators’ favorite.

Although the democratic option keeps coming to the forefront in the minds of China specialists, it keeps being delayed on the ground. Except for Harry Harding, the contributors to this symposium do not consider the change that has already taken place from Maoist totalitarianism to Dengist-Jiangist authoritarianism to have been a category shift to a form of partial democracy. They do acknowledge that the reforms have produced greater pluralism and openness, a trend that Suisheng Zhao calls “liberalization.”

None would argue, however, that the changes constitute liberalization in Guillermo O’Donnell’s or Adam Przeworski’s sense of a political opening that, although controlled, makes publicly available an organized alternative to authoritarianism and thus contains the potential to trigger a further transition to democracy. The village elections, whose significance is widely debated, at most open to competition a low-level political arena where policy is only implemented, not made. At the other end of the political structure, the National People’s Congress is growing in stature, but it still performs tasks assigned by the party instead of providing an alternative to party control.

Even though pluralization and openness have increased, few of the [End Page 60] contributors are ready to announce the birth of civil society. They agree with scholars who have noted the growing power of private entrepreneurs, but most do not believe that this new class offers a challenge to the communist state. Instead, several remark on the formation of a bureaucratic-business elite network. Arthur Waldron describes it as a kind of mafia. This corruption-lubricated infrastructure allows the rising business class and the ruling party to cooperate. The system frustrates rather than facilitates democratic transition, because even as it loosens the discipline of the old organizational instrument, it co-opts potential counterelites.

The symposium contributors, with the exception of Waldron and perhaps Yizi Chen, generally acknowledge the staying power of what most of them see as essentially the same regime. Yet most nonetheless forecast discontinuous change sooner or later, and suggest that change, when it comes, will be in the direction of democracy. Such a bilevel analysis of China—asserting the long-term inevitability of democracy but seeing no current constellation of actors able to bring it about—reflects more broadly the dual nature of theoretical arguments brought to bear in the study of democratic transitions.

Agreement on what is likely to happen in the long run is based on an argument derived from Max Weber and Talcott Parsons by writers like Gabriel Almond, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Richard Lowenthal: that a society of economic freedom and complex interests requires a consultative, participatory political regime. The theory is sometimes couched in terms of conditions ( the rise of a middle class promotes democracy), and sometimes in terms of functions (democracy is the regime that best coordinates pluralistic interests and creates legitimacy in a complex society).

In either form, we find consensus among China scholars in the West (and many in China) that democracy is the only long-run solution to a series of challenges and opportunities that China faces. These include the growth of private and collective enterprise, the emergence of a large middle-income sector, relatively high levels of education and political information, and the infiltration of ideas and models from the West, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Our contributors also point to the bankruptcy of revolutionary legitimacy, the crisis of state-owned enterprises (and the coming jobs crisis for urban industrial workers), the growing urban-rural income gap, and the fiscal weakness of the state, which leaves it resource-poor in the face of growing needs. To this list of issues, Michel Oksenberg perspicuously adds an ecological crisis and...

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pp. 60-64
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