China's Political Evolution: Implications for Beijing's Foreign Relations: Toronto, October 12, 2006

By Pei, Minxin | Behind the Headlines, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

China's Political Evolution: Implications for Beijing's Foreign Relations: Toronto, October 12, 2006


Pei, Minxin, Behind the Headlines


China's relationship with the rest of the world is not determined only by the size and speed of its economic growth. In the decades to come it will really be determined by the nature of the Chinese political system.

Today I will first say something about China's political evolution since it opened its doors to the rest of the world about thirty years ago. I will then discuss the nature of the Chinese political system today and finally I will address how that political system interacts with the rest of the world.

About thirty years ago when China began opening to the rest of the world the country was practically speaking what North Korea is today. It was just out of a two-decade nightmare of radical Communist rule, governed by a megalomaniacal dictatorial leader whose sole interest was the perpetuation of his own power, not the welfare of his people. Thanks to the leadership of Mr. Deng Ziaoping and his colleagues China decided to go in a very different direction. Thirty years later the country is almost completely transformed, especially economically.

China has made enormously positive progress measured in practically all dimensions. The Chinese enjoy more personal freedoms than probably they have ever enjoyed in modern memory, ranging from the ability to travel and to find gainful employment, to social mobility as a result of economic reform, and to access to information: As someone who grew up in China I can recall the days when people ran the risk of going to jail if they listened to Voice of America or to the BBC. Today it is quite routine for people to not just listen to programs on these stations but also to surf their websites.

Economic opportunities in China have also expanded tremendously. Across the whole range of economic well-being the Chinese people today are much better off than at any time in history. Taking together social mobility, individual freedom and economic opportunity the Chinese people ought to be very proud of what they have achieved in the last thirty years.

The political system is more problematic. Politics is the key because political power determines the policies that control cultural activities, education, economic policies, social mobility--everything. At the end of the day we have to look at politics. Whether China will continue along a dynamic path toward more openness, economic progress and individual freedoms really depends on whether its political system evolves in a more liberal, open, and democratic direction.

And here we see a huge puzzle. If we look very narrowly at the area of political governance and political democracy, we wonder whether the China we are looking at is the same China we hear so much about, the one for which we have so many hopes. If we measure democracy and the rule of law, China has made much less progress than in its economy. I'm not suggesting that China remains in the Dark Ages--there has been enormous progress, admittedly from a low baseline. China has said goodbye to the days of the Cultural Revolution. But what interests us is where China will be thirty years from now. We are hoping to compare ourselves quite proudly with countries that one associates with personal liberties, personal freedoms, and political democracy.

When we attempt to measure China's progress with respect to political freedoms and the ruling elite's commitment to political reform, I would say that political evolution has regressed while the economy has skyrocketed. Initially when China began its opening to the rest of the world its political progress was not that far behind its economic progress. The leadership in the 1980s understood that to sustain the economic opening to the West they must also bring their political system closer in line with the rest of the world. That is why they introduced legal reforms, began experimenting with village elections, and gave the national legislature some autonomous power, creating some division of labour within government. …

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