Overcoming Our Middle Kingdom Complex
Finding China’s Place in Comparative Politics
For those who follow China, the country appears to be a mass of contradictions that defy logic. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is led by a Communist Party, but China ranks only second to the United States in number of billionaires. The Politburo Standing Committee has extraordinary power, yet the lowest township and village officials regularly flout national policies. And, perhaps most surprising of all, despite an economic revolution that has resulted in China adopting economic policies and institutions found in capitalist systems and generated social pluralization that includes extensive transnational linkages, democratization seems less likely than ever. There is another kind of contradiction, which is not bedeviling China but rather those of us who study that country. There seems to be a disjuncture between how quickly China is changing and how slowly we are adapting the way we study the country’s politics.
Don’t get me wrong. Over the last sixty years, China specialists have moved from simply trying to describe Chinese politics to comparing Chinese reality against various theories and offering up new explanations of politics by drawing on the Chinese case. Yet we rarely use a tool that provides the title of the disciplinary subfield in which many China experts reside: comparison (as in “the comparative politics subfield”). The PRC is led by a Communist Party, but it has rarely been systematically compared with other Communist countries. China is now awash in capital, but it is only