China at the Crossroads

Everyone knows well the economic progress China’s made in three decades.  The country has gone from one of the poorest in the world to one of the most dynamic.  As with any amount of phenomenal growth, that’s come with a fair degree of acrimony, and China, more so than ever, is today placed at a juncture that will well determine what kind of country it’s going to be.

Here’s what not to expect: a fully liberalized political society, complete with open, free and fair elections with multiple viable parties, and a free press to preside over all of it.  Chinese politics, much like the country itself, is going to be distinct, unique and suited to the country itself, not geared to what suits Westerners.  Will this happen?  Sure.  When?  That’s a much harder question to answer, let alone frame.

China has experienced much over the past two centuries.  The Chinese empire collapsed because of corruption, foreign meddling and a lack of economic growth.  This was a lot to swallow for the one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and overcoming that legacy of shame has been the hallmark of Chinese policy in the past half century.  Any sense that foreigners are interfering is going to set off a firestorm of recriminations, justified or not.

But the fact of the matter is that with the recent problems involving the downfall of senior communist official Bo Xilai and the recent episode of dissident Chen Guangchen, the leadership of the Chinese communist party is looking at the situation in a very Chinese manner.  That is to say, dispassionately, pragmatically and with an eye towards stability.  Senior Chinese leadership realizes that in order to continue the economic growth that we’ve seen over the recent past, it’s too soon to open the country up completely to a fully democratic system, but that if they don’t start making an incremental shift soon, there’s going to be a backlash, the form of which is impossible to predict.

The problem with reform, as Machiavelli pointed out, is that reformers have to face the defenders of the status quo, who stand to lose everything, and they have only tepid support from those who stand to gain under a new system, because in the early stages, reforms guarantee nothing.  Now put this problem in the most populous nation in the world that has the second largest economy and no political culture of pluralism, and you begin to get an idea of what the stakes are involving reforms that will take place at some point in China.  If nothing else, it’ll surely be interesting.

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