Early in the years following China’s post-Mao reforms, a Chinese sociologist told Princeton’s Perry Link, “We’re like a big fish that has been pulled from the water and is flopping wildly to find its way back in. In such a condition the fish never asks where the next flip or flop will bring it. It senses only that its present position is intolerable and that something else must be tried.” Now that China’s economy is being hugely transformed, will this bring political change? And if it happens, will the change be incremental or radical? Either way, can the Communist Party survive?
The Party has always put survival first. In December 1989, six months after the Tiananmen Square events, when many intellectuals and a few entrepreneurs had participated in the demonstrations, Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin decreed, “We must make sure that the leading authority of all Party and state organs is in the hands of loyal Marxists.” Private entrepreneurs, or “exploiters,” as they were called, were banned from the Party.
But on July 1, 2001, President Jiang Zemin praised business leaders for hastening China’s modernization and proposed ending the ban against their joining the Communist Party. Bruce Dickson, a political scientist at the George Washington University, says that this proposal stunned the orthodox members of the hierarchy. “What could be more incongruous than having millionaires in a party created to represent the interests of workers and peasants?” one prominent member asked. Some of Jiang’s critics accused him of violating Party discipline and rules and warned that his proposal would destroy the Party itself.
In the statements and interviews that emerge from China, there are several very different approaches to these developments. Die-hard Maoists still insist that the freedom to pursue profit in private companies must be reined in and Party discipline reinforced. Others suggest that the economy should widen in a capitalist direction but that the Party, while flexible, must remain in charge to prevent chaos. This view was stated clearly by Deng Xiaoping in 1980:
Democracy without socialist legality, without the Party’s leadership and without discipline and order is definitely not socialist democracy. On the contrary, that sort of democracy would only plunge our country once again into anarchy and make it harder to truly democratize the life of the country, develop the economy and raise the people’s standard of living.
Chinese writers also claim that most Chinese want more political change but within a Party-run system; when polled, few of them want real democracy with elections. A survey of popular attitudes supervised by Andrew Nathan of Columbia University in 1990, a year after the Tiananmen events, showed that much of the population had absorbed Deng’s analysis of what China needed. Very few of those polled wanted to get rid of the Communist Party’s leadership. Surprisingly, most of them claimed the government had little impact on their lives. It is often said about China that economic …