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A Little Leap Forward

The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line prime minister, Li Peng, who had presided over the massacres that ended the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement. “Do you think,” the virus pop-up asked, “that Li Peng is a good prime minister or a bad prime minister?”

Li Peng is widely despised, and those who said he was a bad prime minister found that the virus disappeared and did no damage. But those who said he was a good prime minister found that the virus attacked their hard drives.

That was one of the first signs that the social and economic forces released by growing prosperity—an emerging middle class, new technology, the information revolution—would ultimately prove more powerful than the army or Public Security Ministry. Ever since then, the hard-liners have been fighting a rear-guard battle with the result that the Communist Party remains in power in China but Communist values have almost completely vanished.

The upshot is that the most important political transition in the world is underway these days in China. There’s a stirring around the country—peasant protests, worker strikes, literary grumbling, Internet cacophony—that is mildly reminiscent of the dissident muscle-flexing in early 1989, shortly before the Tiananmen movement began. After a dozen years of political paralysis—a stalemate because the leaders and the people were equally afraid of one another—President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are allowing history to make itself felt again.

Several outcomes seem possible over the next decade or two. One is a peaceful transition to democracy, a monumental gain for freedom comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Another is a coup d’état and a military dictatorship. A third is convulsions that lead to a war with Taiwan or the US. A fourth is China’s collapse into civil war and chaos.

All four seem plausible to me, although I would bet on quasi democracy or, a bit less likely, a military coup. Or both. Bruce Gilley, a one-time journalist now making his own transition into academic life, is gambling in his new book on a democratic outcome. China’s Democratic Future is a bold attempt to write history before it happens, explaining how democratic forces will topple the Communist Party.

China’s Democratic Future is a very smart and provocative book, as well as a tour of ancien régime China before it becomes ancien. The risk is that Gilley’s prediction may be completely wrong. China-watchers have a deplorable record, and China’s history is one of unpredictable twists and turns. I happen to agree, pretty much, with Gilley, but I also think—more strongly than he does—that there’s a good chance that we’ll both turn out to be completely wrong.

The backdrop is that China has long recognized that it is subject to a dynastic cycle. In their final years, dynasties tend to squander money, antagonize the population, allow infrastructure to crumble, and become so remote and effete that they lose the Mandate of Heaven—their right to rule. Then a new person leads a rebellion, ousts the old emperor, and starts a new dynasty with himself as the Son of Heaven.

In some ways, that pattern fits the Communist dynasty pretty well. China is today appallingly corrupt. Some of my Chinese friends who were penniless in the 1980s have managed to skim enough state assets to become multimillionaires today; one son of a Politburo member boasted of being paid hefty sums just to have his name on projects, as a talisman against bureaucratic interference. No wonder Neil Bush gets along well with Chinese officials. Ideology is dead, and I don’t know of a single Communist Party member who believes in Marxism; one Party secretary told me that hisfavorite economist is Milton Friedman. The leaders live in their new Forbidden City, the Zhongnanhai compound or else the Wanshoulu compound in the suburbs, and have no clue to what is going on in the lives of the peasants living in mud huts in the provinces.

And yet it does seem a stretch to compare China’s government today, presiding over the fastest-growing economy in the world, with the incompetent ministries at the end of the Ming or Qing dynasties, in the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, respectively. Zhu Rongji, who has just retired, was arguably the best prime minister China had had in the last two thousand years. China’s leaders today tend to be very intelligent, colorless, cautious bureaucrats, and the average IQ in the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing is almost certainly higher than the average IQ in the American President’s cabinet.

Indeed, one of my complaints about China’s Democratic Future is that in its desire to make the case that the government will collapse, it relentlessly understates China’s economic progress and exaggerates the faults of today’s rulers. Gilley writes of “a modest overall improvement in living standards” in the 1980s and 1990s, when in fact the progress was stupendous. People in Gansu moved out of caves into the first houses their families had ever owned. Peasants who used to eat meat once a year, to celebrate Chinese New Year, began to develop a paunch. Infant mortality rates in Shanghai dropped below the rate of New York City, and nationally infant mortality dropped enough to save hundreds of thousands of lives a year.

That is precisely what makes China interesting. We’re used to Communist governments that both oppress and impoverish their citizens. But what is challenging about China is that its government is simultaneously brutal to dissidents and is lifting more people out of poverty more quickly than any other country in history.

What might have been a South Korean or Taiwanese style emergence into a relatively equal and robust market economy has instead become a Latin American-style land of corruption and inequality,” Gilley writes. But when South Korea and Taiwan were at China’s present income level, they were still murdering protesters; even today they are probably more corrupt at the very highest level than China is (though China overall is undoubtedly more corrupt, since its top leaders tend to leave the graft for their children).

Gilley also contrasts China’s disastrous handling of AIDS with “the successful response to AIDS” in India. I’m baffled, for India has bungled AIDS so badly that it’s a major shadow over the country’s future. He writes that “as a constructive partner, China could, like India, enhance Asian regional security.” That glosses over India’s nuclear program, its brutal handling of Kashmir, and at least two episodes in recent years when it came close to starting war (under provocation) with Pakistan.

Asia’s two great civilizations are a study in contrasts today,” Gilley writes. “Both are poor and populous. But India’s flourishing democracy and extensive freedoms serves as a contrast to China’s callous dictatorship and repressive environment.” That seems glib. It was India’s elected (and nationalist) government in the state of Gujarat, for example, that in 2002 stood by as sectarian mobs raged through neighborhoods, killing or raping anyone they encountered, leaving more than one thousand dead, mostly Muslims. China has raised infant health standards, caloric intake, and primary education much more effectively than India with its democracy has.

A look at my copy of the World Bank’s World Development Indicators shows that in China, thirty-nine out of a thousand children die before the age of five; in India, ninety-three do. In China, virtually all children complete primary school; in India three quarters do. In China, 21 percent of women are illiterate; in India, 54 percent are. In China, sixty women die for every 100,000 live births, in India, 440 do. If I come back as a third-world peasant in my next life, I hope it’s in China rather than India.

India’s status as a democracy shouldn’t excuse Indian atrocities in Gujarat or Kashmir, any more than China’s being a dictatorship should indict its increasingly responsible behavior in international affairs. Particularly in the last year, China has dealt with North Korea more responsibly than either the US or South Korea has. It has also responded to demagogic attacks by American politicians on its trade practices with considerable restraint. I have no illusions about China’s rulers, but I think it’s facile to say that they are dictators and thus everything they touch is discredited.

Still, Gilley’s fundamental point—that China is in the grip of a broad social malaise and that the Communist Party is discredited—is absolutely right. Likewise, as he argues forcefully, there is nothing in China that makes democracy particularly unworkable. While the emperor always ruled as the Son of Heaven, the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven also implied that he could be overthrown if he ruled badly. There is a long tradition of great scholars and ministers standing up for justice against the emperor (and usually getting sliced to pieces for their troubles, alas). Unfortunately, they were the exceptions, and scholars in today’s China have mostly been co-opted in order to play the part once played by fawning eunuchs.

A growing archive of leaked documents from the Chinese leadership suggests that more and more of the leaders themselves favor increased openness and democracy. (See especially the extraordinary summary published in English as China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, written by Gilley and Andrew Nathan*) “We had the courage to conclude that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster, so we should have the same courage to face and learn from other mistakes and harm we have brought to the people in fifty years of rule,” Li Ruihuan, one of the party elders and a favorite of Deng Xiaoping, is quoted as saying in 1999. “We should admit our mistakes to the people and to history.” Li Ruihuan has also called elections “the trend of the times and of history” and has suggested that China have elections to choose leaders all the way up to the provincial level.

Another leader, Zeng Qinghong, a rising star in the Communist Party, is also widely regarded as a closet reformer. According to China’s New Rulers, he supposedly has told friends that he would consider retrospectively approving the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement, holding elections up to the county level, and tolerating independent political parties. In a sense the question is not who is China’s Gorbachev, for almost everyone at the top is a potential Chinese Gorbachev—in that they don’t believe in Marxism but want to keep the Communist Party on top, through reform if necessary. The more interesting question is who is a Chinese Yeltsin, who would be willing to bring down the Communist Party and replace it with multiparty rule. I’m not sure just who that Chinese Yeltsin is, but in the right circumstances I think one will emerge.

  1. *

    New York Review Books, second, revised edition, 2003.

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