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  • Is China Stuck?
  • Bruce Gilley (bio)
China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy. By Minxin Pei. Harvard University Press, 2006. 306 pp.

Amid a welter of books, conferences, and editorials on where China is heading, Minxin Pei has put forth a novel answer: nowhere. The gist of his argument is that the country's transition away from state control of the economy and totalitarian control of politics sputtered out after the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing. Thereafter, the country became "trapped" in a no-man's land of dysfunctional rule and mismanaged growth. Partial liberalization did not pave the way for a smooth transition from communism to democracy or to a market economy, but actually prevented it. The result is that China is going nowhere fast. If and when it ever begins to move again, there is simply no telling where it will go.

In part, Pei's gloomy analysis and ambiguous prediction reflect the knitted-brow world of foreign-policy deepthink, where hope and optimism are assumed to be na⁄ve no matter what their empirical validity. A premium is put upon dire forecasts and warnings to take shelter. Pei, a senior associate and director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a longtime student of the former Soviet Union and communist Europe, and his theme of a stalled "dual transition" is a familiar one as regards that part of the world. If nothing else, he deserves credit for reminding us that, at least on some days, China appears as if it might well be headed in the direction of Tajikistan rather than Taiwan. But which will it be?

The book's first proposition is that post-Mao China began as a transitional [End Page 171] state moving along what would be a relatively linear progression from Stalinist authoritarianism to market-based liberal democracy. While there is much to recommend this view, there is of course a serious alternative—namely, that China is indeed modernizing, but is progressing toward a form of modernity quite different from that which characterizes liberal democracy. Many fine minds, both Chinese and Western, have been at work since Tiananmen thinking up ways for China to become a less repressive and more legitimate country without becoming a liberal democracy or fully liberalizing its economy. This is also the official program of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Empirical scholars (many of whom favor this outcome) have found some evidence that this scenario is coming into being. If so, then China's transition is not trapped but ongoing, even successful.

Pei fails to consider this alternative modernity, which is a pity because this question is central to determining which aspects of contemporary China we should be studying to understand the country's future. Should we be conducting public-opinion surveys or analyzing neo-Confucian writings? Is it progress in disposing of state firms or progress in creating state-owned corporate winners that matters most? The book would have had more force had Pei examined and then been able to dispel the notion that an alternative modernity is in the making in the world's largest country.

Assume it is not. In that case, the questions that Pei asks are the right ones. This brings us to the book's second proposition, which is that the Chinese transition is stalled or "trapped." The critical moment at which China turned the corner into a blind alley came in 1989, when the CCP regime crushed a democratic movement. This resulted in economic and political reforms in the 1990s that, by virtue of being wholly regime-managed, gave rise to deformative structures. The reforms kept the private sector small, denied legislative bodies and village governments true power, and allowed the state to become corrupt and inefficient. Democracy could not arise under such circumstances because popular pressures were either coopted or suppressed. Pei wrote in the October 1995 issue of the Journal of Democracy that democratic trends in China "appear to be accelerating," and that "[i]f they are allowed to continue, they will gradually lay the institutional foundations for the eventual democratization of China." Since then, he has proposed that the...