By DONNA URSCHEL
Even with economic reforms, prospects for democracy in China seem obscure for the foreseeable future, according to four scholars convened at the Library for a symposium on China this fall.
Panelists discussed the effect of economic reforms on Chinese society and China's authoritarian, single-party system, as well as challenges that lie ahead for the new leadership of Hu Jintao.
The Library's John W. Kluge Center and the Asian and Science, Technology and Business divisions sponsored the symposium "China in Transition: Will Economic Reform Lead to Democracy in China?" on Sept. 23 in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
Panelists were Bruce Dickson, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University; Lanxin Xiang, holder of the Henry Alfred Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library; Minxin Pei, senior associate and co-director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Quansheng Zhao, professor and division director of comparative and regional studies at American University. Robert Worden, director of the Federal Research Division in the Library, moderated the panel.
Zhao spoke first about "Political Institutions, Civil Society, and the Prospects for Democracy in China." He said China's political reform would be determined by two elements, internal forces and external pressures.
Zhao examined four countries—South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Russia—in which internal and external pressures resulted in change. In South Korea and Taiwan, internal economic forces led to a strengthening of the civil societies and finally a move toward democratic governments.
In Japan, an external force—the U.S. occupation from 1945 to 1962—charted Japan's path to democracy.
Within Russia, the Communist Party gave up its monopoly on power, resulting in a move that led not only toward democratization but also led to economic chaos. Russia's experience, said Zhao, offers an important lesson to Chinese leaders: concentrate on economic change rather than embrace political reform.
Discussing "Dilemmas of Reform in China," Dickson examined the effect of economic reform and social change on the Chinese Communist Party. He said the Chinese people now have better control over where they work and live. With access to information and more disposable income, they have more autonomy in their lives. They do not depend completely upon the state for all their goods and services as they did in the past.
Aware that economic reform and social change will affect political power, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to preempt future demands for political change, Dickson said. For example, the party is allowing groups to organize, recruit members and lobby the government for societal changes—so long as the groups are state-controlled and an extension of the party. They are not allowed to influence party policies.
The party is recruiting people with education and entrepreneurial or technical skills instead of the traditional revolutionary-era classes of workers, peasants and soldiers. The new recruits have skills the party needs to survive, promote economic development, and, from the party standpoint, improve its popularity, Dickson said. Furthermore, by recruiting those who tend to be the most vocal and demonstrative in their demands, the party leadership can prevent them from becoming a force outside the party.
Dickson added that the party continues to exclude people who have democratic goals in mind or who want to change the system in any direction the party opposes. "The Chinese leaders are consumed by fear of instability and chaos," he said. "But they use it to their own advantage by creating fear and asking, ‘What would happen if the party were not here to hold things together?'"
Redefining its relationship to society, the party in 2000 unveiled a slogan, "Three Represents," which means the party must pursue "the development of advanced productive forces, an orientation toward advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the majority of Chinese people," Dickson said.
"The slogan encompasses so much that most people dismiss it as being, if not nonsensical, not very useful as a guide to policy. But that's the point; the slogan is meant to be very elastic, very inclusive," he explained.
In his presentation, "The Idea of Democracy and Chinese Political Reform," Xiang discussed the need for China to look at its own history, particularly its principles of governance, and to incorporate Chinese legacy into future political reform. "No nation can start something completely new, without taking into consideration [its] traditions," he said.
Xiang said the "Three Represents" slogan marks an effort of the Communist Party to look at China's history from a traditional Chinese perspective rather than a Western historical perspective.
Pei discussed "Difficult Choices for China's New Leaders: Restarting Political Reform or Risking Stagnation?" He said there will be no political reform in the foreseeable future.
First, the power structure in the Chinese Communist Party is unclear and still unfolding. Although the new leader, Hu Jintao, rose to power in March 2003, the old leader, Jiang Zemin, still holds a position in the party and wields enormous influence behind the scenes, he said.
Second, political reform in China is like Social Security reform in the United States: "touch it and die," Pei said. In the last 25 years, leaders who advocated reform have not fared well, which is why the new leadership actively discourages talk of political reform.
Third, the problems caused by a lack of political reform in China are like a chronic disease—serious but not life-threatening. Pei said a malaise exists when it comes to taking action on issues, and only in a crisis, such as the spread of SARS, does the system kick into gear and respond.
Fourth, Pei said, China's new leaders must address other problems, such as high unemployment and a weak banking system.
Finally, the new leaders are trying to show they are different from the previous leadership. "They are trying to tinker with the system on the margins without making fundamental or substantial changes," Pei said. The leaders have adopted a more populist, appealing style and are making themselves more accessible to the public.
Pei said China's new leaders will need to complete their transition to power and then take a serious look at how the government itself is managed. "Otherwise, I think we should not be very optimistic about China," he said. The government malaise will result in China losing economic momentum, he predicted, like Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico, which suffered from bad political systems that drove up the costs of doing business.
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer in the Washington area.