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.”1 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.2

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.3 It is often said about China that economic development eventually will lead to democratization. But as Andrew Nathan has noted, “When the entrepreneurial class is part of the ruling network, the bourgeois revolution is as liable to result in fascism as democracy.”4

Finally, there is the opinion of imprisoned or exiled democrats. One of the most eloquent of these is Fang Lizhi, the dissident astrophysicist who was a hero for many students until the Tiananmen events, when he took shelter in the American embassy; he now lives in the US. He recalls the Chinese who used to argue “that Western science was not appropriate to China. We no longer find such people because it is universally acknowledged that science has no East or West. Scientific laws apply everywhere. I believe that those arguing that democracy is unsuited to China will someday meet with a similar fate.”5

In two excellent books, Bruce Dickson and Robert Suettinger, a former member of the CIA and the National Security Council, put forward their views on the prospects for Chinese democracy. According to Dickson, “The evidence so far is quite clear: the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has repressed every popular movement calling for democratization and political reform.” Not only do “many Chinese seem to believe that the CCP is essential for maintaining political stability” but “most individuals and groups in China do not seek autonomy but rather closer embeddedness with the state.” He concludes: “The argument that the CCP can ultimately be the agent for gradual and peaceful political change in China (in other words that democratization in China will follow the transformation path) is not based on any tangible evidence.”

Robert Suettinger is far more optimistic. Admitting that “for social control purposes” (some would say keeping itself in power) the Party remains heavy-handed and repressive, he concludes that “in its quest for economic success that incorporates socialism and capitalism, the regime has assumed social, political, and ethical norms and goals more like those of the United States than of Mao’s China.” It would be hard to disagree that China today is in some ways more like the US and less like its Maoist predecessor. And it is true that the government permits all sorts of private companies to compete and sell on the international market. But this is far from saying that it is moving away from control by a single party.


Could the newly democratic Taiwan be a possible model or at least inspiration for China’s future? Dickson’s previous book, Democratization in China and Taiwan: The Adaptability of Leninist Parties,6 showed clearly—and he is an admirably concise writer—that Taiwan’s transition from Nationalist dictatorship to its present directly elected democracy, the first-ever on Chinese soil, could not provide a model for the mainland.

He points out that the Nationalists were a minority refugee regime from the mainland ruling over a large majority of Taiwanese, who, although ethnically Chinese, came from a different cultural and historical background. Most Taiwanese families trace their families back at least two hundred years, if not more. Although Taiwan’s dialect and customs originated in Fujian province just opposite Taiwan on the mainland, most Taiwanese and many children of mainlanders who arrived with the defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1948–1949 now describe themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.7 The Taiwanese also controlled much of the economy, following a long and much-resented economic domination by the Japanese. As a result, Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor, only very slowly drew the Taiwanese first into local and then national affairs. Young Taiwanese, many of them educated in the United States, “created pressure within the KMT [Kuomintang/Nationalist Party] for democratization.”

Finally in 1996, the Taiwanese voted for Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese, as president. Unlike the KMT, which always seemed to Taiwanese to be “foreign,” the mainland CCP, an indigenous party, is not “motivated by the search for domestic sources of legitimacy [or] by the type of ethnic conflict that prompted Taiwanization.” Dickson believes that “there is little likelihood of the CCP following in the path of the KMT, transforming itself and presiding over the successful democratization of its political system.”

Because it will not bring its rivals into its own system of power, preferring to imprison them, the CCP, Dickson said in his earlier book, “has created a backlog of grievances against the party.” These will not vanish and the many worker and peasant riots and demonstrations of recent years are only the most visible dangers to Party rule.

Of course the Party is not going to wait patiently to collapse. Dickson first examines how the CCP has been changing its organization, membership, and officials to fit into the rapidly changing economy and society that Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms brought into being. “The debate inside and outside the party,” he writes, “concerns the compatibility of a Leninist ruling party alongside a market economy.”

Dickson’s second main theme is an analysis of the origins, activities, and goals of the “red capitalists,” the “entrepreneurs with close personal and political ties to the CCP.” After reviewing the scholarly literature on whether economic development leads to some form of democracy, Dickson concludes that it may do so, but neither inevitably nor immediately, and notes that the role of big Chinese investors and business leaders is “complex and ambiguous.” He notes that they may “prop up an authoritarian regime because they benefit materially or because they are worried that political change will harm their property interests.” Many of the one million Taiwanese now working in China are opposed to President Chen Shui-bian’s declarations of independence. Many of them flew back to Taiwan just before the recent election to vote against him.


Visiting China in the 1990s, Dickson conducted the first poll ever taken of Chinese entrepreneurs. It was not a fully representative survey, he writes, but it strongly suggested that the more successful, better-educated, and urban Chinese entrepreneurs are uneasy about fundamental political change and therefore favor a continuation of Party rule. For these businessmen, Dickson says, “autonomy,” i.e., cutting oneself off from the Party, “is akin to powerlessness.” He adds that while businessmen do not yet occupy leading political positions, they “have confidence in the ability of institutional mechanisms to deal with their concerns, and downplay the importance of personal relations as a factor in business success.” Here he ignores the potent role of corruption in relations between business and the Party. Official corruption is always mentioned first by Chinese when they discuss national problems, and several of the senior leaders have warned that it could bring the Party down.

But the regime’s collaboration with capitalists and landlords is indeed a reversal; they used to live under suspicion, enduring prison, torture, and death. Their “class backgrounds,” it was said, made them implacable enemies of the Communist state. Dickson points out that during the “high tides” of ideological frenzy, such as the Cultural Revolution, Party membership expanded enormously. Recruitment to the Party diminished whenever “Redness” became less important than expertise. During the more radical periods, candidates were selected sometimes for their class background, fervor, and obedience; at other times education, technical skills, and economic ambitions counted more heavily. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late Seventies, educated and skilled victims of the Maoist years were released from prison and encouraged to put what they knew at the service of economic reform. It was increasingly proclaimed that “to get rich is glorious,” a phrase attributed (without evidence) to Deng.


But because of the uneasy mixture of Reds and experts, Dickson observes, “the party at all levels was divided by factionalism.” By the Nineties, he also shows, even the Party itself was becoming irrelevant, in the eyes of both young Chinese who were making money and those who felt left behind. Party membership and authority were dwindling, as making a career in business and strengthening one’s ties to the Party were seen by many young rural entrepreneurs as incompatible. In the countryside Party cells were weak or had totally collapsed, their places taken by clans, churches, and criminal gangs, called triads. The Party, Dickson writes, grasped that to deepen its economic reforms and to save itself would require major internal changes, including adding members who would previously have been banned.

By the 15th Party Congress in 1997, the number of Party members with at least a high school education was over 43 percent, up from 13 percent in 1978. Over 90 percent of the Central Committee had been to college. Of the entrepreneurs surveyed by Dickson more than 40 percent were Party members, a percentage far greater than in the population as a whole. These investors and leaders of private companies saw themselves as “partners, not adversaries, of the state.” The more successful the urban entrepreneurs become, Dickson discovered from his polling, the more closely they adhere to the concept of Party rule and the less they favor substantial political change. These Red capitalists and other rich men and women “believe,” he found, that the business associations they belong to “represent both their interests and the viewpoint of the government. While they are not demanding civil, political, or social rights that would clearly mark themselves as citizens…a more explicit concept of citizenship [may] emerge.”

Accompanying the rise in education and skill has been growth in the number of associations, usually professional or business-related, to which many Chinese now belong. These include, according to Dickson,

…independent entrepreneurs, owners of private enterprises, enterprises with foreign investment, organized labor [unions not under Party control are forbidden], Cath- olic and Protestant churches [only those deemed “patriotic” and under Party control], writers, scientists, and other functional interests.

What cannot exist are associations or political groups opposed to the Party. Dickson observes that in China, unlike some other countries, these associations have not led to a civil society in which individuals and groups express interests contrary to the policies of the state. Chinese associations seek close relations with the regime. The increasingly successful people in this “non-critical realm,” as Dickson calls it, are “primarily concerned with the management and regulation of collective goods and services but less interested in changing the political system itself.” Nor are Red capitalists the only group who have drawn closer to the regime. After decades of persecution many intellectuals, as in imperial times, see themselves as “loyal remonstrators” rather than severe critics, much less revolutionaries. Perhaps they are weary of living in fear and welcome having a secure place in a growing economy. “The truly dissident voices are relatively small in number and are perhaps held in higher regard abroad than they are within China.”

What is emerging, Dickson writes, are “corporatist structures…as a substitute for coercion, propaganda, and central planning to maintain party hegemony.” These new “structures” include not only groups of businessmen, but of unions, Catholic and Protestant churches, writers, and scientists, all in associations sanctioned by the state. To belong to unsanctioned groups, however, such as the underground Catholic Church, which has many more adherents than the approved body, or an unofficial political party, such as the Democrats (nearly all of whom are in jail or exile), is to risk suppression and persecution.

Why do the new rich join the Party? Dickson says that to them it is seen as the place from which they gain influence on financial policies, obtain scarce materials, and secure loans and tax benefits. Inside the Party, professionals and business people are shielded from unfair Party and legal decisions, and from competition from outside the Party. Such are the benefits for those inside the system of the “Leninist logic [which] still prevails in China.”

The Red capitalists, Dickson concludes, reinforce the Party’s commitment to economic reform, growth, and productivity, and, in doing so, they may be contributing to the undermining of the Party’s Leninist foundations. It is certainly true that Chinese can now much more openly criticize the regime, so long as they don’t take public action against it. But in Dickson’s view, what is really doing the damage to the Leninist state, which its rich domestic partners do little to challenge, are some of the consequences of the current system—increasing inequality, corruption (which then President Jiang warned more than once could “bring us down”), joblessness, and the degradation of the environment. Unfortunately, Dickson could not have conducted a parallel poll of workers, peasants, and low-level state employees, many of whom have been openly expressing grievances. Only when such information is available will we begin to have an adequate account of the tensions in China.

Still Dickson has no doubt that the inequality, corruption, and other distortions of the economy require genuine political reform—which the Party and its well-to-do members so far do not permit. Genuine reform would include open debates about policy between groups and organizations that are not officially “supervised,” a legal system with genuine commitment to impartial law—“in short,” as Dickson says, “democratization.” Very likely, such reforms, more surely than corruption, would bring the Party down; the Party continues to insist that reform of the kind Dickson mentions would lead to “chaos.”8

Of course it is the Party itself that since 1949 has produced most of China’s problems and disasters. Nonetheless, it has persuaded many Chinese and not a few Western experts that, to avoid chaos, it must remain in place. “Indeed,” as Bruce Dickson says near the end of his highly informative, if pessimistic, analysis, “the lesson of the CCP’s tenure as the ruling party in China suggests that it forcibly represses all efforts by non-state actors to expand the parameters of political participation.” No wonder that fundamental political reform is hard to discern.


In Beyond Tienanmen, Robert Suettinger writes: “The regime has assumed social goals, political, and ethical norms and goals more like those of the United States than of Mao’s China.” This sentence occurs one page before the end of Mr. Suettinger’s 442 pages of text and it astonished me for two reasons: to say that China is more like the US nowadays than like the hellish place that was Mao’s China is not saying much; but more importantly, Mr. Suettinger’s book raises many questions about this conclusion. In a masterful summary of why the regime cracked down as heavily as it did on the Falun Gong spiritual movement beginning in April 1999, Mr. Suettinger comments that although China is far more open than it was ten years ago, President Jiang Zemin’s campaign against the Falun Gong made plain his “fundamental Leninist attitudes”:

It revealed a man—and a party—still frightened of its own population and convinced of the need to extirpate every organization or social movement capable of developing political alternatives to the Communist Party…. It portrayed…a political party unprepared for political reform, unable to resist the temptation to view the world through ideological blinders.

As for any similarity to the United States, Mr. Suettinger says, “the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China has remained one of wary distrust that occasionally deteriorates into enmity.”

Mr. Suettinger was a high-ranking official at the heart of US–China policymaking, in the State Department, CIA, and National Security Council, who observed discussions between sen- ior American and Chinese leaders. His book is notably balanced, occasionally eloquent, and never tedious. It is a careful survey of relations between Washington and Beijing from Tiananmen in 1989 to the final years of the Clinton presidency, and concentrates on why this relationship has always been awkward and sometimes in crisis. Policymaking, he says, is governed less by grand strategy than by personalities, domestic politics, and, perhaps above all, unpredictable events.

Suettinger, who must have been soaked in classified information during his long government career, insists that he has used only open sources and interviews. Some of his anecdotes certainly are telling. A minor example is the meeting in Beijing in June 1996 between Anthony Lake, national security adviser to President Clinton, and President Jiang Zemin. Suettinger was present. Lake had brought a folder of “talking points” on trade and human rights issues, but Jiang ignored these points and in excellent English discussed the similar watery origins of the words “Jiang”—river—and “Lake,” and went on to express views on poetry, microchips, and philosophy. “Lake looked at his staff, shrugged, and put his talking points away.” The Americans concluded that Jiang was happy with the progress of the US–China negotiations up to that point and saw no need to say anything substantial.

A very large event was the accidental US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999. The Chinese believed and continue to believe that the strike was deliberate. Thousands of Chinese, some spontaneously, some officially directed, demonstrated in the streets of Beijing and attacked the US embassy. Neither country, Suettinger rightly says, and not for the first time, understood the reactions of the other. Perhaps the biggest effect was on young Chinese, who had admired the US and now “felt betrayed and humiliated. Their rage was real, and the effects of it persisted.” Suettinger went to Beijing in June 1999 to discuss the bombing with Foreign Ministry officials just before the arrival of Thomas Pickering, President Clinton’s personal envoy. Suettinger’s hosts “made it clear that nothing Pickering said would be accepted by the Chinese government as a satisfactory explanation.”9 The bombing was gradually mentioned less often but the dispute over it was not officially resolved.

Taiwan, Suettinger emphasizes, is a major and “intractable” obstacle to smooth or merely agreeable relations between Beijing and Washington. The conflict between the two Chinas has lasted fifty years, ever since Beijing claimed sovereignty over the island and Washington has made this impossible; in 1996 the US moved a naval task force near Taiwan to make clear that it would prevent either missile attacks or an invasion. As he says, Taiwan is a “core issue” for Beijing, bound up in China’s history and perceived destiny. He might have noted that a foreign policy often based on resentment about long-distant national insults is unimpressive. It is an issue, moreover, on which the People’s Liberation Army has always been consulted and insists on having a part in making policy. Taiwan can cause a sudden crisis in the China–US relationship. In 1992, President George Bush announced that he would sell 150 F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan. This was a political move intended to gain support in Texas and to thwart the presidential ambitions of H. Ross Perot. Bush told the Chinese ambassador, “This is going ahead. It’s political. Tell Deng Xiaoping that is something I have to do.” (As of mid-April, with the outcome of the recent Taiwan presidential election still uncertain, the policy of the Bush administration remained unclear.)

Beijing, Suettinger implies, has no friends; only temporary allies, and the sale was “a fundamental misreading of China’s position and reaction.” Whatever the elder Bush had imagined about the friendships he had established with Chinese leaders since the days he represented the US in Beijing in 1974, he was denounced. The Chinese, convinced that Washington had broken an agreement about what sort of weapons the US could sell Taiwan, broke another agreement and “very publicly” sold a nuclear power reactor to Iran.

Most surprising, and most insightful, is Suettinger’s insistence that the Tiananmen “massacre” lies at the heart of the uneasy relations between the Chinese and the Americans. Many China experts advise those like me who witnessed the Tiananmen repression to “put it behind you.” Mr. Suettinger writes: “There has been little forgetting and less forgiving of what the two countries accused each other of in 1989.” He states that each side contends that the other has misrepresented what happened in Beijing in the spring of 1989. This preoccupation lies behind and undermines attempts to deal with human rights problems, Taiwan, trade difficulties, arms proliferation, and periodic reinforcements of stereotypes. The most fundamental aspect of the stumbling block Tiananmen represents, Mr. Suettinger astutely observes, is this:

The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party remains a product of Tiananmen. Few of them would be in their current positions of power had not the events of twelve years ago taken place as they had…. Their legitimacy is tied to Tiananmen,…[and] they have punished with jail or exile or isolation all who have questioned those judgments, piling injustice on top of error.

They also deny access to China to the American scholars Perry Link, Andrew Nathan, and Orville Schell, who were involved in preparing The Tiananmen Papers, the documentary collection (which Mr. Suettinger regards as largely authentic) purporting to show how Deng and his closest comrades decided to intervene in the student demonstrations.10

Although the new government is often described, with some justice, as more open than its predecessors, this openness does not extend to many of the Party’s traditional concerns. In its most recent report the State Department says that human rights have regressed during the last year. In Tibet the authorities continue to lock up monks and nuns who demand independence, and refuse to negotiate with “the criminal Dalai.” Beijing threatens Taiwan with extreme violence if it appears to be pursuing independence. In early December, Major General Peng Guangquan and Senior Colonel Luo Yuan warned that if Beijing decided to regain Taiwan by force it would willingly sacrifice the 2008 Olympics, foreign investment, economic progress, and good foreign relations, and be prepared to suffer high casualties.11 Some American experts on the Chinese military, who have held senior political and military positions, suggested at a recent seminar at Oxford that if Taiwan seemed to be losing in a military conflict with China, the US would consider “taking the war to the Mainland.”

Disturbed by months of peaceful agitation for greater democracy in Hong Kong, Beijing now labels the leaders of the movement as unpatriotic. One high Chinese official has warned that if Hong Kong voters continue to demand that a genuinely representative legislative council be elected, Beijing might abolish even the present council, which is almost powerless.

In a recent study published in China, “The Condition of China’s Peasantry,” the two authors expose in detail the deteriorating condition of China’s 900 million farmers, whose incomes have generally remained low, while east-coast urban wealth has risen. They describe the corruption of rural officials, and accuse ex-President Jiang Zemin and ex-Premier Zhu Rongji of covering up peasant poverty, which, the authors say, has resulted in “one country with two systems.” In response to this study, the government has promised rural reforms aimed at improving the lives of peasants.12

Perhaps the most astonishing development this year is the letter about the Tiananmen events of 1989 to the National People’s Congress written by Dr. Jiang Yanyong, the man who last April publicly accused the government of lying about the extent of SARS, which resulted in the dismissal of the health minister and an admission by President Hu Jintao that some officials had concealed the crisis. The repression at Tiananmen remains the most sensitive political issue in China, although some Western experts on China say it is a dead issue. Normally, even mentioning it as a problem attracts arrest and detention. In his letter, written in February to Premier Wen Jiabao, Dr. Jiang described the Tiananmen demonstrators in 1989 as “innocent patriots” opposing a corrupt government of “racketeers.” Dr. Jiang claimed that most Chinese supported the students in 1989 and want a reassessment of the killings. Most sensationally, he wrote that in 1998, just before he died, Yang Shangkun, who was the president at the time of the Tiananmen events, admitted that what had happened in Tiananmen had been a huge mistake by the Party which some day must be corrected.

In suggesting what the US should do, Suettinger shows himself to be a cool, or to use one of his favorite terms, “clear-eyed,” pragmatist. Although he values human rights, he plainly thinks that the US policy statements expressing concerns about political prisoners, Tibet, Taiwan, and democracy only elicit flinty reactions from the Chinese and obstruct progress in matters like trade and arms on which Beijing has proved itself prepared to deal if it is not fundamentally challenged. Suettinger agrees with Rebecca Hersman, author of Friends and Foes,13 that those “individual members of Congress with single-issue agendas for China—human rights, nonproliferation, abortion, and religious freedom—may have significant influence on the larger policy agenda.” This noisy crowd, Suettinger believes, “arguably contributed to decisions that turned out to be erroneous—for example, Clinton’s linking of human rights standards and most favored nation status.” In the end the Chinese got what they wanted and did not back down on human rights.

Suettinger wants the American– Chinese relationship to be “managed” by cooperation between bureaucracies—by the National Security Council in the US and a “national security small group” in China. This must be done to counter the groups within each country that see the other as an enemy.

Suettinger waits for the very end of his excellent book to reveal these thoughts. I cannot agree with them. The Chinese bureaucracies can in fact be all too adept at “managing” antagonistic popular reactions to US policies. Suettinger echoes the offi-cial position in Beijing when he warns that political reform in China could collapse into “social destabilization, ultranationalism, or aggressive expansionism.” The Party, too, warns that “only we can rule China,” and that if it falls there will be “instability,” and locks up democrats, Falun Gong members, underground Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists, and Xinjiang Muslims. The Communist Party may be “odious… on occasion,” Mr. Suettinger warns, but we must deal with it. He predicts that the Party will survive by “permitting its citizens to live, work, think, and communicate as they will.” Yet only thirty or so pages before this Mr. Suettinger describes a “Leninist” regime, “frightened of its own population and convinced of the need to extirpate every organization or social movement capable of developing political alternatives to the Communist Party.”

In fact the need to “manage” the conflicting expectations of the US and China—whatever that means—is not the real lesson of Robert Suettinger’s superb book, although it is a common view among China experts. He seems to me to point in the opposite direction: the more voices calling for change in China the better, and if this means that the US officials find themselves in awkward positions, that is what should distinguish Washington from Beijing. In China, until recently, dissenters were condemned as “counterrevolutionaries.” Nowadays they are described, simply, as “criminals.” It seems an illusion to call this progress.

This Issue

May 13, 2004