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  • Will China Democratize?Current Trends and Future Prospects
  • Robert A. Scalapino (bio)

Firm predictions about the future of China are hazardous. Many variables, both domestic and international, can influence events, and few of them can be predicted with any certainty. Nonetheless, those who have undertaken a study of this society have the obligation to assign certain “probabilities” and “improbabilities” to various future scenarios, reassessing the situation at frequent intervals.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, it was legitimate to ask whether China could avoid an implosion that would rip the nation apart. This period, however, demonstrated anew the fact that Chinese society can live with a high degree of tension and chaos, perhaps in part because its nuclear units remain relatively cohesive.

There is no evidence at present to suggest that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be dismembered or undergo drastic regime change in the foreseeable future. It is true that the process of decentralization has been an important political trend since the onset of reform 20 years ago under the late Deng Xiaoping. Dynamic regions like Guangdong Province on the southeastern coast have rushed forward economically—in this case, interacting with Hong Kong to form a so-called Natural Economic Territory. A few years ago, central control of macroeconomic policy seemed threatened, and Vice Premier Zhu Rongji was given the difficult assignment of strengthening it. But regions enjoying full autonomy, whether economic or political, are a fiction in today’s China.

It is also correct to note that in regions where there have been security problems, such as Xinjiang or Tibet, the military plays a very significant [End Page 35] political role. Moreover, key military figures always have representation at the top level of central Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and governmental structures.

The China of the 1990s, however, is not the China of the 1920s and 1930s. While the military may on occasion act as a pressure group, and on certain issues may speak with a commanding voice, the evidence suggests that the Communist Party’s leadership and the supremacy of civilian authority are overwhelmingly accepted. Equally important, appointment power at all key levels remains in the hands of central authorities, and frequent rotation can ensure that no power enclaves can be built up within the officer corps.

Drawing Up a Balance Sheet

If neither disintegration nor drastic regime change seems to be in the offing, what is the most likely scenario for the twenty-first century? It can be summed up as follows: China will be a major power with major problems. To draw up a balance sheet of the PRC’s accomplishments and difficulties is to underline that statement. Few developing nations can point to the kinds of economic gains that China has made in recent years: productivity increases of more than 10 percent a year; hefty foreign-currency reserves bolstered by surging exports; rising foreign investment bringing advanced technology; and controlled inflation.

Yet daunting economic problems remain. Banking and financial institutions are in serious disarray due to uncollectible loans. State-owned enterprises account for two-fifths of China’s industrial ouput, yet fully half of these enterprises are operating at a loss. Unemployed or underemployed rural dwellers have been migrating to the cities in massive numbers, seeking opportunity but facing many strains and hardships in the nearer term. Corruption is widespread, and there is a growing gap in living standards between the fast-developing east and the more static western provinces.

China’s leaders recognize these problems, and are trying to come to grips with them. Both the resolve that these leaders have shown and the successes that they have achieved have been variable. Clearly, solutions will not come quickly or easily. Well into the next century, this most massive of all human societies will be searching for the best economic policies. Yet while the negative side of the economic ledger will cause downturns at times and may breed unrest in some sectors, the positive side is likely to be sufficiently strong to propel China into the ranks of major powers. China’s economy will influence the entire region, for which it will represent both an opportunity and a...

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pp. 35-40
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