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 …

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