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  • Will China Democratize?The End of Communism
  • Arthur Waldron (bio)

I would dearly like to affirm that China will be a fully democratic state in ten years’ time, but in all honesty I see that possibility as very small. What I do believe is that the next ten years will see extensive change and perhaps turbulence in China without leading, by the period’s end, to any conclusive resolution of fundamental issues of governance. I expect a mixed governmental system, still in flux, in which the powers of regions and localities will be greater than they are today, and the center weaker. I expect communism to have disappeared even as rhetoric, with nationalism taking its place. Extremes of wealth and poverty will be greater than today; so will the differences in degrees of liberty between regions. I hope, and expect, that on balance this system will be considerably more open than what exists now, but do not discount the real possibility of a corporatist China, run on antidemocratic lines by an alliance of political authoritarians, big business, and elements of the military.

Will there still be a People’s Republic of China governed by the Chinese Communist Party in ten years? My bet is “no.” To start with the name, “People’s Republic” is less widely used today than it was even a decade ago. Chinese stamps, for example, regularly bear only the name “China”; that usage is followed as well in ordinary speech, political demonstrations, and international organizations. The reason? These days “China” has a far stronger ring of legitimacy and historical continuity about it than does the rusty “People’s Republic,” with its East European, Soviet, and other archaic associations. One saw in Beijing, shortly after the fall of communism in the West, embassy nameplates with the words “Democratic People’s” blacked out, leaving only [End Page 41] “Republic of” whatever. Mao Zedong himself reflected from time to time that calling the new regime “People’s Republic” had been a mistake; it would have been better to stick with the “Republic” that China had been since 1912.

Much the same can be said of the Chinese Communist Party. Substantial efforts are currently being made to recruit the best and the brightest of China’s youth into the party, and to co-opt influential figures, from Hong Kong, for example. Special scholarships in “Marxism” have been created at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in an effort to attract bright scholars into a field they currently shun. But such actions serve only to underline the fact that communism’s fundamentals—the theory of class struggle, the alliance with the former socialist states, and an antidemocratic policy—now lack the power to persuade or to inspire. World communism depended upon genuine conviction and dedication, on the genuine belief that communist doctrine explained and predicted things, which led to the willingness to die for it. Many early communists sincerely believed that they were truly creating a better world, in which oppression and poverty would be abolished, and true freedom and dignity would be established for all. They were mistaken, but they were not hypocrites like those in China’s leadership today, who call for honesty and simplicity while salting away hundreds of millions of corruptly obtained dollars in foreign bank accounts. Without such animating beliefs, the party becomes no more than a cover for opportunists; the name may persist, as the Chinese say, but the reality will be gone, mingcun shiwang.

At this point, the conventional wisdom responds roughly as follows: “Yes, you are right about Chinese communism, but you fail to see that a new political system is growing inside the shell of the old. You must recognize that the party has transformed itself into a modernizing elite, with its hands on the existing institutions and levers of power, and is still recruiting the best and the brightest. Furthermore, nationalism has already displaced communism as an ideology. When ordinary Chinese see the red flag, they think ‘China,’ not ‘communist.’ The present system is changing, and gaining strength and legitimacy from the reform process.”

This view has a lot of adherents across the political spectrum, so let me say why I...

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