China's Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy

By Trott, Stephen | The China Journal, July 2009 | Go to article overview
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China's Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy


Trott, Stephen, The China Journal


China's Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy, edited by Cheng Li. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2008. xvi + 342 pp. US$29.95/£17.99 (paperback).

In this edited book, fifteen top China scholars offer compelling, empirically rich and illuminating snapshots of trends in the development of China's political system. Moving beyond the "trapped transition" paradigm, they assess whether democracy will emerge from incremental political change in China.

Several scholars survey the terrain of ideology and political culture, delineating the ideational boundaries of political reform in China. Andrew Nathan's analysis of political and academic discourse reveals a thorough absence of enthusiasm for Western-style democracy (competitive elections for public office), remaining nominally dedicated to their own conception, namely CCP leadership, plus consultation. In contrast, Yu Keping offers an optimistic assessment of the Party's ideological incorporation of such concepts as rule of law (fazhi), private property (siyou caichan) and harmonious society (hexie shehui), implementation of which is realizing "incremental democracy". Yu concludes that this gradually negotiated expansion of political inclusion, while carefully protecting pre-existing interests, means that "inner-party democracy" and grassroots democratic experimentation may eventually produce expanding political competition and the free election of political leaders. Indeed, Chu Yun-han argues that a social basis exists for such a transition. His illuminating comparison of public orientations to authority in 1980s Taiwan and today's PRC shows parallel trends away from authoritarian values as a result of socio-economic modernization. Nevertheless, these findings reveal a critical tension between protecting élite interests and satisfying broader constituencies.

How might different social groups' competing interests affect reform of the political system? Cheng Li's chapter on China's "Fifth Generation" of leaders (those raised during the Cultural Revolution) argues that an emerging bipartisanship within the Party between two dominant factions with Communist Youth League and coastal-city career backgrounds could constitute the basis for future electoral competition. This pluralism informs policy-making, enhanced by broadening educational backgrounds as social science and management majors supplant the formerly dominant technocratic engineers. Barry Naughton's analysis of the "left tilt" towards more redistribution in central policy since 2002 shows how broader interests are being considered by central policy-makers, suggesting a shift towards a more "normal" politics of contending clusters of interest groups. Erica Downs and James Mulvenon's analyses of the petroleum industry and military respectively in politics demonstrate how these groups' increasing functional specialization has narrowed but also sharpened their influence within their particular fields. While their broad interests remain intertwined with the Party's, favoring their continued compliance with its rule, the Party leadership can face policy challenges from these groups' initiatives. Examples include the downing of China's satellite and the domination of Sudan's oil sector. In contrast, Dorothy Solinger documents how migrants, the poor, the unemployed and the aged, unrepresented and unable to act collectively, are politically marginalized. She argues that worker and peasant representation within the Party is being supplanted by educated white-collar professionals and entrepreneurs, resulting not in democratization but elitism. Thus pluralization and exclusion are concurrent processes in today's China, highlighting how groups' differential power resources shape the contours of political change.

Naughton and Solinger conclude that the pro-poor "left tilt" remains underinstitutionalized, being contingent on élite benevolence (and robust budgets). In contrast, Jing Huang argues that China's leaders increasingly entrench rules such as term limits - to circumscribe their adversaries' power.

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