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The Internal Logic of China’s Political Development

Why is positive political change in China less likely to come from outside pressure than from continued economic growth?

June 3, 2011

Why is positive political change in China less likely to come from outside pressure than from continued economic growth?

China, as we all know, has gone through an extraordinary economic transformation over the last 30 years. This transformation has remade the face of coastal China. It’s now spilling over into the interior and it’s raised, literally, hundreds of millions of people to an unprecedented level of affluence.

Conventional wisdom, however, shared by many Americans and much of the media, is that China’s political system has remained frozen and that there have been no significant political reforms to match those in the economic sphere. This, of course, is nonsense. Political change in China has occurred on a vast scale, in a number of vitally important areas affecting the day-to-day existence of ordinary Chinese.

These changes encompass, first, the relationship of the government to the people. In the 1970s, China still had a totalitarian political system in which the government controlled literally every aspect of people’s lives. Now, the Chinese have significant freedom of choice on such matters as where they can live, where they can travel, what they can wear, what they can read, where they can work and where they can be educated.

Even with the censorship that remains in place, the Chinese have access to a wider range of information than ever before, and social networking and the blogosphere have become significant factors influencing government attitudes and behavior.

The second change is in the age and educational characteristics of the country’s national leaders. China is alone among modern countries in having a system of rigorously enforced age limits that apply even to its top political leaders. The top-level age limits have only been applied consistently since the 16th Party Congress in 2002. But at national, provincial and local levels, they have dramatically and visibly altered the age structure of the leadership. As long as this practice continues, it means that the successors to top leaders are a minimum of ten years younger than their predecessors. In China, you can’t have a John McCain replace a George W. Bush or a Bill Clinton.

As for the characteristics of the leaders themselves, not only are they younger, they are much better educated. In 1982, in the early stage of reform and openness, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party did not have a single university-educated member. In 2007, just 25 years later, 23 of the 25 members of the Politburo that emerged from the 17th Party Congress had formal university educations, and the two others were educated at an equivalent level.

A third area of change is in the ideology of the Communist Party itself. In essence, the Chinese Communist Party has abandoned traditional communist ideology. Instead of class struggle, it preaches a harmonious society. Instead of claiming to be the vanguard of the proletariat, it now admits capitalist entrepreneurs to the party and claims to represent all of the people. It has embraced market economics. It has instituted an orderly process for the selection of top leaders.

A fourth area of change is in the way Chinese think about political issues. This is the result of many factors, including the hundreds of thousands of students who have studied abroad and the millions who travel abroad on official trips for business or for tourism every year. This allows for greater access to information and greater freedom for discussion. Tens of millions of Chinese can compare conditions in China with conditions in other countries on the basis of personal experience and observation.

While the government can and does monitor expression, restrict information in certain areas and ruthlessly suppress organizations that lack government and party approval, this is far less pervasive than it was three decades ago. These changes are not just cosmetic.

Avoiding the mistakes of Gorbachev

As anyone who visited China in the 1970s and more recently can see, they have altered patterns of life in significant ways. What has not changed, however, is equally significant. In terms of systemic political change, evolution has been much slower. China still has a one-party system controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, which is determined not to permit any organized opposition to emerge.

The government and party have been experimenting in offering greater freedom of choice, both within the party and in the selection of officials at the village level. But these changes have not yet gone very far, and the experiments with representative government at the village level have not moved from the village to the cities and the provincial capitals.

In essence, the party is determined to avoid the mistakes the Soviet Union made under Mikhail Gorbachev, who, in their eyes, committed the cardinal error of loosening the political reins too quickly and then losing control. Most importantly, China’s political system is still in a pre-modern form in that it lacks the legitimacy that can only be provided by an electoral mechanism that provides citizens with a direct say in the selection of their rulers.

China has the distinction of being the only major country in the world that lacks such an electoral mechanism. The absence of a meaningful electoral mechanism also sets China apart from the other so-called BRICs, since Brazil, Russia and India all have some form of direct electoral process, as does South Africa and even Iran. Within the G20, only China and Saudi Arabia lack electoral mechanisms that give citizens a direct voice in the selection of national leaders.

Generational changes

As China continues to develop economically, this omission will become even more glaringly obvious, and over time it has the potential, if not addressed, to create systemic instability. At the same time, when considering the internal logic of political development in China, we should not underestimate the impact of generational change in the leadership over the next two decades.

Political change in China is likely to be driven by such generational changes in the top leaders. The fifth-generation leaders who will take over next year will be the first leaders in China to have spent most of their adult careers during the period of reform and openness. Xi Jinping, the current vice president and the presumed heir apparent to the top position of general secretary of the party, was just 25 years old at the time of the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, which launched the reform and openness policies. Thus, most of his formative experiences as an adult occurred during this period.

Li Keqiang, the presumptive replacement for Wen Jiabao as premier in 2013, is two years younger than Xi Jinping. Within the Politburo, if the age limits now in place are adhered to, seven of the nine members of the standing committee will have to step down to be replaced by younger leaders. And the same is true for over 40% of the full 25 members of the Politburo.

The sixth-generation leaders who will take over in 2022 — 11 years from now — will be too young to have any memories of the Cultural Revolution. These leaders will be confronted with the never-ending sets of problems generated by China’s rapid transformation, but their responses will be influenced by their different generational perspectives, their greater familiarity with the outside world and China’s growing integration in the global economy.

It flies in the face of experience and common sense to assume that leaders with such different formative experiences will respond to the problems of managing China using canned formulas inherited from their predecessors. This is where so many analysts went wrong in assessing Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.

The analysts saw Gorbachev as an apparatchik, cut from the same cloth as his predecessors. That’s true — but he was also the youngest Soviet leader since Stalin became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1922. It should not have been surprising that Gorbachev adopted an approach far different from the aged leaders — 20 to 25 years his senior — who had preceded him.

Growth through stability, stability through adaptation

I came to Washington to join the U.S. government at the end of President Eisenhower’s first term. Then, after several overseas assignments, I returned to Washington during the Kennedy administration. It was like coming back to a different country, in no small measure because of the greater youthfulness of the ruling group.

What do these factors mean for the evolution of governance in China? Conceivably, the economic and social changes that will occur in China over the next two or three decades, including the continued emergence and maturing of the middle classes, will produce strong and perhaps irresistible pressures for systemic political reforms. The question, as always, will be whether such reforms can take place under conditions of stability, or whether any loosening of China’s political constraints will unleash uncontrollable domestic forces that will make the country less governable. There are no easy answers to this question.

Deng Xiaoping’s thesis, which I personally heard him outline in 1981, was that China could only succeed in economic development under conditions of stability — and only continued one-party rule by the Chinese Communist Party could ensure stability. Whatever the merits of that thesis, circumstances later in that decade suggest that continued one-party rule could not ensure stability in the absence of significant adaptations. That is likely to be the case in the future as well.

But that still leaves the question of what sorts of adaptations will be necessary in order to provide for continued stability. Some of the lessons from China’s economic development may be relevant to the course of political change in China.

Why has China been able to sustain rapid growth for such an extended period? The answer is that China’s leaders have been remarkably adaptable in adjusting the system to accommodate the changes that are taking place. The altered mindsets in China are enormous, far greater than many Americans realize.

In essence, the party has been bold and imaginative in responding to the challenges it faced. It is too little appreciated in the United States that for the last 30 years, China has been constantly adapting as its domestic and international circumstances have changed. This has included major government reorganizations every five years for three decades. Ministries have been created or abolished. State agencies have been turned into quasi-private corporations. This willingness on the part of China to change differs sharply from what one encounters in Washington, where there’s such concern over our inability to correct the problems that are making our political system — in the eyes of many Americans — increasingly dysfunctional.

I attended a conference in Hainan Island in January 2010, and it was literally stunning to find Chinese at all levels of participation assuming that China would simply change their institutions if necessary to cope with new problems — whereas nobody in Washington thinks that our institutions can be changed, or at least nobody has found a way to do that yet.

Conceivably, this same adaptability could eventually emerge in the political sphere. We should remember that within greater China there are already two alternative political systems. You have the multi-party democratic system in Taiwan, and you have the mixed — elected and non-elected — systems in Hong Kong and Macao. How these political systems function over the next several decades will have an influence over political developments in the rest of China.

The vast majority of Chinese recognize that stability is a precondition for continued economic growth. This perception unites Chinese of widely varying political views. Does this mean that meaningful political reform will not take place? The answer is no.

Elsewhere in Asia, authoritarian governments that have remained open to the outside world and have been active participants in the global economy have, without exception, given rise to representative forms of governance after 30 to 40 years of rapid economic development. It happened in South Korea, it happened in Taiwan, it happened in Thailand and it happened while I was ambassador in Indonesia. In the case of Thailand, we also see that such transitions may be fragile and subject to backsliding, especially when electoral systems produce bad leaders, which, unfortunately, is sometimes the case.

China has only moved 15 to 25 years along this path, depending on whether you start counting the period of rapid growth from 1979 or from 1993. I prefer the 1993 date because if you look at the charts, you see that that’s when China experienced a really sharp rise in the growth of its GDP.

To the extent that these Asian models have any relevance for China, this means that it’s premature to expect significant systemic political change to occur in China in the near future. Indeed, if we want positive political change to occur in China, this will more likely be the result not of outside pressure, but of continued rapid economic growth and generational changes within the Chinese leadership.

Inevitably, the world will be watching what happens.

This article is adapted from Ambassador Roy’s presentation at a Brookings Institution panel discussion, “Evolution of China’s Governance: Chinese and American Perspectives,” on May 9, 2011. Published with the permission of the author.


Conventional wisdom maintains that there have been no significant political reforms in China to match those in the economic sphere. This, of course, is nonsense.

The Chinese Communist Party has abandoned traditional communist ideology. Instead of claiming to be the vanguard of the proletariat, it now admits capitalist entrepreneurs to the party.

In terms of systemic political change, evolution has been much slower. China still has a one-party system which is determined not to permit any organized opposition to emerge.

When considering the internal logic of political development in China, we should not underestimate the impact of generational change in the leadership over the next two decades.

The Chinese willingness to change differs sharply from what one encounters in Washington.