- The End of China’s Reform Era
China, Xi Jinping, Governance, Political Reform
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This essay examines recent developments suggesting that China’s post-1978 reform era has ended and assesses the economic, ideological, and political implications.
The late 1970s saw Chinese leaders steer their country out of the chaos and stagnation of the Maoist era, launching the policies of “reform and opening up.” In subsequent decades, domestic Chinese politics were marked by three core factors: (1) rapid economic growth, (2) ideological openness, and (3) relative political stability as the result of partially institutionalized norms, such as those governing the retirement and succession of top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. However, all of these factors are ending. Foreign media coverage has focused on recent elite political developments, such as the CCP’s proclamation of a “new era” under Xi Jinping and the removal of constitutional term limits on his role as president. But these developments are the culmination of much deeper shifts dating back to the early 2000s—with even older roots. Recent events merely illustrate how these trends have steadily deepened over the last two years.
• In the short term, policymakers should expect China to evolve in the direction of a harsher and more personalized authoritarian system.
• In the medium to long term, China will likely experience a revival of the sources of domestic political instability that marked the pre-1978 era—elite political turmoil, escalating social conflict, and rising ethno-nationalist sentiment directed at minorities and foreigners alike.
• Beijing’s interest in increasing its economic and diplomatic influence overseas will continue unabated, with Chinese-language media and ethnic Chinese communities outside China as the first targets. Foreign firms and entities operating within China should also expect an increasingly unfavorable ideological and political climate.
• Democratic countries should respond to Chinese pressure by reaffirming their liberal democratic values rather than giving into the nativist sentiment currently sweeping many Western nations. [End Page 84]
In the late 1970s, China’s rulers steered the country out of the political turmoil and economic stagnation of the Maoist era, launching the policies of “reform and opening up” (gaige kaifang). During the decades-long reform era that followed, domestic politics were marked by three core factors: (1) rapid economic growth, (2) ideological openness, and (3) relative political stability as the result of partially institutionalized norms, such as those governing the retirement and succession of top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders.
All of these conditions are ending. Foreign media coverage of China has focused on recent elite political developments, such as the CCP’s proclamation in fall 2017 that the nation has entered a “new era” (xin shidai) under Xi Jinping, the removal of constitutional term limits on his role as president in spring 2018, and other indications that China is steadily evolving in the direction of an extended period of one-man rule. But these developments are merely the culmination of a much deeper set of changes that extend back to the early 2000s, with roots that go back even further. Political, economic, and ideological developments over the past two years merely illustrate how these trends are steadily deepening.
This essay examines these trends. Drawing from my recent book, the first section sketches out how the core political, economic, and ideological characteristics that had marked the reform era have eroded.1 The second section explores developments since 2016. The third section outlines the implications of these trends.
the end of china’s reform era
Rapid growth has been the beating heart of China’s renaissance. First-time visitors inevitably remark on the efficient high-speed rail network, the unending proliferation of Starbucks coffeehouses, and the ever-expanding number of newly opened shopping centers (and online apps) offering the latest in consumer products. All are the products of China’s astounding reform-era economic boom. Starting in 1978, the nation averaged 10% GDP growth annually for three decades, one of the highest rates in world history. The results have been spectacular. In the late 1970s, China was poorer than Afghanistan, India, and Zaire. By 2016, not only [End Page 85] had the...