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  • China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead
  • Alan P. L. Liu (bio)
Bruce Gilley. China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. xvi, 297 pp. Paper $20.00, ISBN 0-231-13085-6.

A long-time resident of Hong Kong and reporter of Far Eastern Economic Review Magazine, Gilley has written this book partly to wish a democratic future for China, partly to predict the coming of democracy there, and partly to help Chinese democrats to prepare for that outcome and do a good job at it. The book essentially combines into a comprehensive whole existing works that deal with special aspects of the Chinese political and social scene.

Gilley’s prophecy for a democratic China is based on his observations of world trends (the third wave of democratization), flow of Chinese history (from ancient time to the prodemocracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989), and social changes in China since the 1980s. To Gilley, all these point to the fact that there is no way out for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but to democratize one way or another.

The book is organized logically into three parts: the coming crisis which initiate democratization, transition from the old regime to the democratic one, and consolidation of democracy. Gilley states that his analysis is based on “laws of social science” (p. xiii) and “evidence from history” (p. xiv). He described his writing being more “descriptive than prescriptive” (p. xiv). For readers who may get lost in Gilley’s descriptive, or at times not-so-descriptive, details, I recommend that they read the afterword (pp. 249–251) first. There, Gilley analyzed the CCP’s management or mismanagement of the SARS crisis in late 2002 and early 2003. The reader will get a quick overview of the entire book, such as Gilley’s deep belief in China’s democratic future and also his qualifications about that, as exemplified in the statement: “There is simply no compelling argument that China will be a great exception to the nearly-worldwide movement of social emancipation from ‘sclerotic authoritarianism’ that we now call democratization” (p. 251; emphasis added). The reader will also see in the afterword the “glass half-full or half-empty” problem (or interpretation complex). Gilley saw in the SARS episode evidence of the CCP’s incompetence; he believes that in the future, a crisis like the SARS might trigger a prodemocracy upsurge from Chinese society, terminating the CCP rule of China. At the same time, Gilley acknowledged that others may see the CCP’s strength in resolving the SARS emergency. This which-part-of-the-glass problem affects the entire book. Last, but not least, we also find Gilley’s admissions of basic uncertainty in this last section of the book. He said that a book about the future must accept the possibility that it would prove to be wrong, and [End Page 94] that “details of transition are always a surprise” (p. 249). One will see qualifications and equivocations like these scattered throughout the book.

But Gilley is a modest and conscientious writer. He specifies what would falsify his thesis: if democracy failed to happen in China “for several decades” after publication of his book (p. xv). He hopes that even in that case, his writing contributes to our “knowing the options, directions, and challenges of China’s future” (p. xv).

By far, the best and most factual part of the book is Gilley’s presentation of various dire social and economic problems of China, such as political and economic corruption, inequality, lack of freedom, rural poverty, rising rates of suicide, the absence of modern health care for a substantial portions of the population, and low social capital. The much-praised rate of economic growth, said Gilley, has been overblown. What really accounted for the rise was the CCP’s cleaning up the mess left behind by their socialism, shifting labor and capital from agriculture to industry and services, and marketization. He cited a World Bank study that concludes that gains from the aforementioned factors would diminish after 2015; after that Chinese economy would...


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