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  • Will China Democratize?Three Scenarios
  • Suisheng Zhao (bio)

It is hard to predict the political changes that could take place within the next decade in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC’s penchant for swimming against various tides, amply demonstrated over the past 50 years, means that the best one can do is to expect the unexpected. Serious scholars will be cautious. Social science can suggest where we should look, but its ability to tell us what we will see is limited.

I believe that the current trend of political liberalization will continue over the next decade, and that certain small but important steps toward democracy will be taken. These developments will not necessarily cause the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to collapse or lose power. Indeed, since the early 1980s, the party has been transforming itself from a mass-revolutionary formation into a pragmatic party willing to make social and political reforms in order to maintain the system undergirding its rule and to meet the challenges of economic modernization.

These reforms have been initiated from above, and have been characterized not by any “big bang,” but rather by incrementalism. Although these have not brought about any notable democratization, they have generated and will continue to generate greater political pluralization and openness, and lay a foundation upon which democracy may one day be built. It is not impossible that the CCP regime will gradually open the political system to limited competition, though it could also try to muddle through without democratizing the political process.

Scholarly work on democratization distinguishes it from political [End Page 54] liberalization. The latter is a necessary precondition for the former, and involves expanding basic freedoms of expression and association, as well as the rights of individuals. The former entails building democratic institutions, including regular, free, and fair elections. In China, political liberalization began in the 1980s, after the early successes of economic reform. There have been many subtle advances in political liberalization since then.

Initiated by the CCP under Deng Xiaoping after the death of Chairman Mao, political liberalization occurred mainly in three broad areas:

  1. 1. Reconciliation between state and society, accomplished mostly through the CCP’s reduction of the scope and arbitrariness of political interventions in daily life. Under Deng, ordinary citizens began to enjoy much greater freedom of belief, expression, and consumption than they had under Mao.

  2. 2. Expanded opportunities for popular participation in political affairs at both the grassroots and national levels. The introduction of competitive elections to local legislatures, the expansion of the role of the National People’s Congress (NPC), and growing consultation with various social groups through several institutional mechanisms have characterized the post-Mao reforms, even though the degree of participation and the kinds of views permitted are subject to important restrictions.

  3. 3. Redefinition of the content and role of the official ideology in such a way as to create a new basis for political authority. The party repudiated many of the ideological concepts associated with Mao’s later years, such as class struggle and continuous revolution. Instead, the main task of politics came to be seen as promoting modernization and reform. The responsibility of the state was increasingly defined as expanding democracy, rather than exercising dictatorship. The party admitted that many intellectual, scientific, and technical questions can and should be addressed on their merits, without regard to ideological considerations. This attitude presents a stark contrast to the Mao era, when decisions were supposedly never made without a prior consideration of the relevant doctrinal principles.

The reforms greatly relaxed the party-state’s control over society, but without altering the fundamentals of the Leninist system. As a result of political liberalization, China abolished class labels (such as “capitalists” and “rightists”) and paid more attention to legality. This liberalization has continued, despite the notorious crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators in 1989. China is now more open to the outside world than ever before, and the Chinese people are enjoying unprecedented freedom in their daily lives. As a New York Times report put it: “Not long ago, it was inconceivable that ordinary people in China would be able to buy and sell shares of stock freely, or have access...

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