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  • What’s in Store for China
  • Merle Goldman (bio)
China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead. By Bruce Gilley . Columbia University Press, 2004. 288 pp.

China's Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead. By Bruce Gilley. Columbia University Press, 2004. 288 pp.

Will China become a democratic country within the next twenty years? At present, the lack of opposition political parties, nationwide free elections, the rule of law, a developed civil society, a free press, and an independent middle class, legislature, and judiciary makes the possibility of a democratic China seem far-fetched. Yet Bruce Gilley, a former journalist for the Far Eastern Economic Review, sees such a possibility materializing. In his new book, Gilley supports his thesis by marshaling a number of thoughtful, substantive arguments, presented in a comparative context. He foresees an elite-led process of democratization, spurred by pressures from below but within the context of the well-established Chinese state, unfolding in the early decades of the twenty-first century.

Gilley finds prodemocratic legacies in China's premodern history: bureaucratic meritocracy, Confucian accountability, and Buddhist tolerance. He also points to 1912, when the fall of the last imperial dynasty led to the establishment of the Republic of China, and 20 million Chinese voters elected a national government in free and fair elections. Although the results of those elections were nullified by outbursts of warlordism that lasted almost until China's 1949 communist revolution, Gilley expects to see the hundredth anniversary of those elections celebrated with another round of voting in 2012, in a second attempt at founding an enduring democracy in China.

There is no question, as Gilley points out, that the post-Mao economic reforms launched in the last two decades of the twentieth century [End Page 168] worked in democracy's favor. As they shifted China away from centralized planning and toward a market economy, these reforms also transformed Chinese society by limiting the government's power, fostering autonomous transactions among individuals, and loosening state control over people's personal lives. Yet despite these changes, Gilley notes, the Leninist "vanguard party" system remains intact. Thus, when students and ordinary citizens demonstrated in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, demanding democracy and calling for an end to corruption and inflation, the Mao-generation elders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sent in troops on June 4 to suppress the movement with gunfire.

Yet, despite the tragic end to the promising events of 1989, Gilley sees them as a prelude to democratization, for they revealed a nascent civil society with global linkages on the issues of democracy and human rights, as well as the first glimmers of negotiations between the regime and the opposition. In the 1990s, accelerating economic reforms unleashed other problems—growing economic, social, and regional inequalities; rampant corruption at every level of government; and unregulated environmental pollution—which have made the move toward democracy, as a way to deal with these problems, all the more urgent.

Gilley explains that such obstacles as the CCP's revolutionary elders (most of whom have already died) and the military, which had become neutralized by the start of the twenty-first century, no longer block China's road to democracy. And the growth of a broad and increasingly wealthy middle class has created a new force for democratization. As Gilley explains, "the middle class seeks recognition and protection of its growing interests from the state, mainly through improved legal guarantees and openness." By the turn of the century, this urbanized class accounted for 10 to 15 percent of China's population.

Gilley cautions, however, that democratization may be delayed when business interests collude with the authoritarian state. This is already the case in China, as business leaders have begun forming close alliances with officials in a variety of economic endeavors at both the national and local levels. In fact, in the past few years, the CCP has been actively recruiting millions of businesspeople into its ranks, thereby coopting them into the system and making them less likely to be a force for change. Although it is clear that Chinese society has grown stronger...


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pp. 168-171
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