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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 U.S. 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 his favorite 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 U.S. 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.

The emergence of such a leader, or leaders, will not, of course, mark the end of Chinese authoritarianism. Democracy, as Russia itself found, can be a shocking and destabilizing experience, and Yeltsin was soon followed by Putin. For China, which is arguably more an empire than a nation, democracy could lead to fragmentation and chaos. But democracy still seems preferable to any other option. China might conceivably move from a reformist Communist leadership toward a more democratic regime that would win elections but also manage to control the news media and find ways of impoverishing and imprisoning anyone who challenges it. If elections did not allow independent parties to have freedom of expression and assembly they would not be fully democratic.

But leaders, able to limit such rights, might well hold quasi-democratic elections with competing parties—and win. The Polish or East German Communists never had that choice, because it was clear that democracy would mean the ouster of the leaders, not their legitimation. Gilley likewise assumes that the Chinese Communist Party is so unpopular that it would be rejected under a democratic system. I’m not so sure.

My guess is that if the Party allowed partly free elections it could heavily influence the system and dominate the peasantry (rather like the PRI in Mexico, LDP in Japan, or KMT in Taiwan) so as to stay in power for many years or decades. Naturally, that would make quasi-democratic elections, in which the mass media were controlled and laws applied unfairly, a much more palatable possibility for Chinese leaders, particularly those like President Hu who were not tainted by Tiananmen.

Taiwan ended martial law and became a democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, the first part of historical China to have a democratic government. After that, it was difficult to argue that the Chinese people are somehow incapable of democracy, and many of us think that China is slowly following the path of Taiwan (which is roughly the same as the path of South Korea, Chile, and Spain as well). In contrast to the Communist countries of Eastern Europe, which essentially failed and collapsed, the quasi-fascist countries of Asia generated wealth, produced a middle class, raised education levels, and generally created demands for more freedom and democracy. In each case the process was bumpy—as recently as 1980, in Kwangju, South Korea had a massacre of several hundred people—but ultimately economic development forced the dictatorship to back off and allow meaningful elections.

* * *

China is comparable because it is also, in reality if not in name, quasi-fascist. Chinese officials always flinch when I tell them that, but it’s meant as a compliment. Communist regimes like the Soviet Union were moribund, but fascist states like Spain or Taiwan, for all their repression, created the economic growth that ultimately transformed them. So when mainland China shifted in the late 1980s and early 1990s from being a dictatorship of the left to a dictatorship of the right, it laid the groundwork for its own economic success—and its future democracy.

In the early 1980s, China was still a leftist, totalitarian country, in which capitalism was suspect, many workers would avoid work, yet people depended on their “work unit” for housing and benefits. Even to get permission to marry, one needed permission of the work unit. But China has steadily transformed itself. Housing was taken out of the control of the work unit, so people owned their own apartments. Scarce goods came to be rationed by price, not by high-ranking Party access. Then came the Tiananmen protests, in which the democracy activists lost in the short run but gained in the long run. Gilley writes:

In its desperation to claw back unchallenged political power after 1989, the CCP accelerated the pace of social liberalization and state institutionalization. All but the largest state enterprises were put on the auction block, while the Party withdrew further from the media, education, and individual lives. The rule of law and the role of local people’s congresses in policymaking gained ascendancy over Party fiat…. The military was professionalized, losing any political or economic clout. In short, the Party responded to the popular pressures of Tiananmen with an even less intrusive and less arbitrary state. In these respects, democracy was likely to be more durable once achieved.

In short, China did not achieve political pluralism, but it did move toward economic pluralism, cultural pluralism, social pluralism. China now has some seven thousand newspapers or magazines, five hundred publishing houses, three thousand TV stations, 250 million mobile phone users, and 70 million regular Internet users.

The Internet has been particularly important in liberating Chinese and spreading information. The government tries to clamp down on subversive sites, blocking access to Taiwan newspaper Web sites and anything else deemed likely to have antigovernment information (particularly in the Chinese language). But it’s an impossible task. Moreover, on-line forums are proliferating, and they are providing ways to air differing ideas. You can’t go on-line and say that President Hu is a turtle’s egg (it sounds worse in Chinese), but you can gripe about local corruption or poor highway planning.

I experimented on my last trip to China and tried various postings. My first version, which I sent to several chat rooms (in Chinese, pretending to be Chinese myself), was: “Why is Prime Minister Wen Jiabao off in America kowtowing to the imperialists when he should be solving more important problems at home!” That was too tough, and none of the chat rooms allowed it. But my third and mildest version was accepted: “Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to America has been very successful, but I wonder if perhaps he is wasting too much time abroad instead of focusing on our own important problems like unemployment.” In a country where nobody used to be able to say anything critical of a leader (Chinese took out their feelings about Deng Xiaoping by smashing a “little bottle,” which in Chinese is pronounced “Xiaoping”), a hundred flowers are finally blooming.

When I was a correspondent based in Beijing, ordinary Chinese almost never dared call up our office or send us mail. Nowadays, American correspondents in Beijing are constantly hassled by peasants from Sichuan or workers from Shenyang calling to complain about injustices in their home towns. Journalists have to fend off the complainants.

* * *

Labor actions and peasant protests have become increasingly common, and my guess is that they will continue to spin out of control. There is so much anger and stored-up resentment in China that protests will be constant once people dare to speak out. Until now, there’s been a balance of terror—the government and the people have been equally afraid of each other. But increasingly, people are losing their fear.

Moreover, it used to be that when a dissident was tossed into prison, the authorities warned his family to be quiet, and they would be. But it turned out that when family members complained to the outside world, their loved ones got released earlier. That message has been absorbed, and so now it’s routine for family members to reach for their cell phones as soon as their loved ones have been detained. They are, to be sure, still detained. Human rights are routinely abused in China, and while the regime increasingly doesn’t arrest its more polite critics, it is still ruthless about punishing those it really fears: anyone who organizes an opposition party, for example, or an independent labor leader, or those who back the Falun Gong religious movement. Those arrested are usually treated with some care if they have connections to the outside world, but local police in the provinces are often very brutal toward the unknown workers or peasants whom they take in for questioning. It’s not uncommon for such people to be beaten to death, usually by accident. My sense is that it’s not exactly central government policy to torture these unknown dissidents; rather, the central leaders really don’t care about such victims one way or the other. The local Public Security Department has enormous discretion, and the result is a variable pattern of repression: in one county, Christian house churches will flourish without interference at all; in the neighboring county, the police will arrest such underground Christians, imprison them for years, and encourage other prisoners to beat them up.

The exact number of prisoners held because of their beliefs is impossible to establish, partly because dissidents (such as religious leaders in particular) are sometimes framed for genuine crimes such as rape or robbery, partly because “troublemakers” are often detained for years in “reeducation through labor” camps outside of the judicial system, and partly because the victims of repression sometimes lie as much as the perpetrators. The Falun Gong, for example, has credibility problems of its own and is probably exaggerating when it says that 100,000 followers have been detained in camps or forced into mental hospitals. But it’s also clear that many thousands of Falun Gong followers were detained, and several hundred appear to have died of beatings and other mistreatment during detention. The U.S. State Department, in its latest human rights report, quotes “credible sources” as saying that two thousand people are still in prison for their roles in the 1989 democracy protests. That number seems high to me, but there is no doubt that many thousands of Chinese are imprisoned for their beliefs, that thousands more are executed for crimes each year after the flimsiest of due process, and that peasants or workers who stand up to the local authorities are sometimes battered to death for their temerity.

* * *

It’s true that a majority of Chinese are still poorly educated peasants, and it’s often objected that such people lack the democratic culture necessary to support a real democracy. There is something to that objection, but I think too much is made of it. I will never forget the scene at Tiananmen Square in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, after the troops began shooting on the students. With each explosion of firing, the crowd would race back in terror, and then the troops would stop shooting and the crowd would stop running. Then the two sides would face off across a deserted stretch of the Avenue of Eternal Peace, strewn with the bodies of dead and injured young people, some screaming for help.

The heroes of that moment were the rickshaw drivers. These were peasants from the villages, in flip-flops, barely literate, surviving in Beijing by pedaling passengers or bags around the city on their rickshaws. The drivers pedaled their carts back out in the open, toward the troops and their guns, and picked up the bodies of the dead and wounded and carried them back through the crowd to the hospital. When they saw a foreigner they would veer by to show what the government was doing to its young. They said almost nothing, but some had tears streaming down their cheeks as they pedaled. Even when some were shot at, they kept up all night, carting the dead and injured to the hospitals.

There were scenes like that everywhere, and although it was the students and intellectuals who got most of the attention in the West, the workers and peasants were in the thick of it as well. On the road to Beijing from the airport, an ordinary bus driver saw the troops coming and quickly parked his bus across the road to block the troops. They came to him, angry, aimed their guns at him, and ordered him to move the bus. Instead, he took the bus keys and hurled them into the underbrush beside the road.

People like the rickshaw drivers or that bus driver probably could not have given a very good definition of democracy. But they fought for it with exceptional courage. It seems churlish to complain that Chinese peasants cannot sustain a democracy when they have risked their lives for it.

Moreover, peasants have been perennially discriminated against in “People’s China.” They were the ones who starved to death during the famine in the early 1960s; they are the ones who are denied permission to move to the cities and who are not given decent schools, which are the ticket to a better life. Astonishingly, it takes a much higher test score for a peasant from Anhui province who has gone to awful schools to get into Beijing University than is required of a privileged applicant from Beijing itself who has gone to the best schools. It’s about time for a peasant revolution in China, and the peasants know it.

* * *

The result is that I think we’re beginning another cycle of protest, like the one that began in early 1989 and ended at Tiananmen Square when the tanks rolled in. No one knows how it will end, though I’m fairly optimistic. But while Gilley seems confident that troops won’t open fire next time, I wouldn’t rule that out. Particularly in the provinces, it seems to me entirely possible that a protest or riot will be resolved by troops moving in and mowing down protesters with machine guns. I’m convinced that if the order to shoot is given, the ordinary troops will do so. I’ve talked to too many young peasant men who say that if they’d been at Tiananmen in the People’s Liberation Army and their commanding officer had ordered them to open fire, sure, they would have.

It also seems to me that a coup d’état is quite plausible. In the past, leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had real stature, in the army and out of it. Hu Jintao has no great legitimacy. If people are grumbling and an opportunity comes along, the commander of the Beijing Military Region will be happy to take over. This thought has occurred to China’s leaders as well, and former President Jiang Zemin in particular ordered several studies on coups d’état in developing countries and how to avoid them.

Orders to deploy troops are carefully controlled and must come from both a commander and a political commissar; at present the people in both these positions are shuffled around so that they never get too close to each other. When a general moves from one command to another, he can bring with him only one aide, to avoid the emergence of military stars with strong followings.

Still, my guess is that it wouldn’t be so difficult to stage a coup. If one general acted quickly to seize the party leaders and also the national radio and television, then he could announce that he had acted on behalf of many commanders and Politburo members to take charge of corruption. And all the other political leaders and generals would sit on their hands, watching which way the wind would blow, afraid to take sides. With everybody so timid, the coup might well succeed.

The other risk, as Gilley notes, is that in a crisis—such as another Tiananmen-style democracy movement that paralyzes the nation—the leadership might well be tempted to attack Taiwan. That would create an external crisis, an excuse for martial law.

* * *

If I were President Hu, I wouldn’t bother with Taiwan but would instead manufacture a crisis with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan is, after all, the country every Chinese loves to hate. And while the Taiwanese would fight back, Japan has been so wimpish in the last few decades that it’s not clear it would put up a fight for the Senkaku Islands. In theory, the U.S. is obliged under the U.S.–Japan security agreement to defend the Senkakus on behalf of Japan, but there’s no way that the U.S. is going to risk nuclear war with China over a few uninhabited islands that no one in America has ever heard of.

That brings me to a larger point. One of the most troubling patterns over the last dozen years has been the rise in China of a virulent, xenophobic nationalism, directed in particular at Japan but to a lesser extent at America and other countries. Gilley blames this on the Chinese government, and he’s right to some extent. But I think it goes deeper, reflecting deep resentments that an ancient civilization like China should lag behind a tiny upstart like Japan. And I don’t think that democracy in China will end this nationalism. Indeed, as we saw in Hitler’s Germany, ordinary people can give power through elections to a charismatic leader who knows how to use the power of nationalism. We’ve been lucky, in recent years, that Jiang Zemin used his influence to tamp down Chinese populist anti-Americanism. In the aftermath of the U.S. spy plane incident, for example, another Chinese leader, trying to arouse popular anger, might have put the American spy plane crew on public trial and executed the captain.

So even if China is moving toward democracy—which I think is probable but far from certain—that would be only the beginning of a roller-coaster adventure as China gains power again. For most of human history, China was the most important and powerful country in the world, and then it began to fall apart after the year 1500. Now it’s moving forward again, and whatever political form it takes it will be one of the central stories of this century.


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