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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 5

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China's Changing of the Guard

The following symposium marks the third time that the Journal of Democracy has published an assessment of China's political future in the wake of significant changes in the country's leadership. Our very first issue (Winter 1990), which appeared only half a year after the brutal June 1989 suppression of the movement for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, carried four articles dissecting "China's great leap backward" (to quote the title of Merle Goldman's essay). It was a grim and shocking moment in China's turbulent history, puncturing the hopes for an imminent democratic breakthrough.

The successor political leadership, led by Jiang Zemin, initially looked conservative, unstable, and internationally isolated. Yet during the 1990s it oversaw remarkable economic progress, while reforming some aspects of politics and reintegrating China into the international system. With the growth of competitive village elections, administrative litigation, and intellectual pluralism over the course of the decade, the prospects for democratizing political change seemed more promising as the Fifteenth Party Congress approached in September 1997. Yet little occurred there, or at the Sixteenth Party Congress this past November, to fulfill hopes for accelerated political reforms.

In our January 1998 issue, we asked ten China experts to assess the prospects for democratic political change (and communist survival) over the coming decade. Generally, they saw a resilient regime that would not soon democratize but that was beset by many problems, including deepening corruption and waning legitimacy. Several of our contributors cautiously expected reforms that would make China's system, in Harry Harding's words, "more open, more rational, more responsive, and more accountable." Their forecasts varied, but only Arthur Waldron predicted the end of Communist Party rule within the decade, amid an increasingly fragmented and volatile China.

The current symposium was organized with the invaluable assistance of Andrew Nathan and also of Minxin Pei, whose concluding essay highlights the sharp division of views among the contributors. While we sought authors who would speak to different themes with different perspectives, we did not anticipate the full range of divergence. Even the coauthors of a prominent new study of China's fourth generation of leadership, Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, draw on the same facts to come to strikingly different conclusions. China's political future now seems generally less clear than it did five years ago—with signs of "creeping democratization" particularly hard to discern.


—The Editors, 12 December 2002



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