China has gone through an extraordinary economic transformation over the last 30 years. This transformation has remade the face of coastal China. It’s now spilling over into the interior and it’s raised, literally, hundreds of millions of people to an unprecedented level of affluence.
Conventional wisdom, however, shared by many Americans and much of western media is that China’s political system has remained frozen and that there have been no significant political reforms to match those in the economic sphere. This, of course, is nonsense. Political change in China has occurred on a vast scale, in a number of vitally important areas affecting the day-to-day existence of ordinary Chinese.
In the 1970s, China had a totalitarian political system in which the government controlled literally every aspect of people’s lives. Now, the Chinese have significant freedom of choice on such matters as where they can live, where they can travel, what they can wear, what they can read, where they can work, and where they can be educated. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students have studied abroad and millions travel internationally for business trips or for tourism every year. Tens of millions of Chinese can compare conditions in China with conditions in other countries on the basis of personal experience and observation. Even with the censorship that remains in place, the Chinese have access to a wider range of information than ever before, and social networking and the blogosphere have become significant factors influencing government attitudes and behavior.
China has also undergone significant changes in the age and educational characteristics of its national leaders. China is alone among modern countries in having a system of rigorously enforced age limits that apply even to its top political leaders. The top level age limits have only been applied consistently since the 16th Party Congress in 2002. But at national, provincial, and local levels they have dramatically and visibly altered the age structure of the leaders. As long as this practice continues, it means that the successors to top leaders are a minimum of 10 years younger than their predecessors. In 1982, in the early stage of reform and openness, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party did not have a single university- educated member. In 2007, just 25 years later, 23 of the 25 members of the Politburo that emerged from the 17th Party Congress had formal university educations, and the 2 others were educated at an equivalent level.
A third area of change is China is in the ideology of the Communist Party. In essence, the Chinese Communist Party has abandoned traditional communist ideology. Instead of class struggle, it preaches a harmonious society. Instead of claiming to be the vanguard of the proletariat, it now admits capitalist entrepreneurs to the party and claims to represent all of the people. The Party has embraced market economics and has instituted an orderly process for the selection of top leaders.
As anyone who visited China in the 1970s and more recently can see, China has undergone reforms that have had enormous impact both on the government and in the daily life of its citizens. What has not changed, however, is equally significant. China still has a one-party system controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese citizens still lack direct say in the selection of their rulers. Within the G20, only China and Saudi Arabia lack electoral mechanisms that give citizens a direct voice in the selection of national leaders. The government and party have been experimenting in offering greater freedom of choice, both within the party and in the selection of officials at the village level, but these changes have not yet gone very far and the experiments with representative government at the village level have not moved from the village to the cities and the provincial capitals.
Further political development in China is likely to be driven by generational changes in the top leaders. The fifth generation leaders who will take over next year will be the first leaders in China to have spent most of their adult careers during the period of reform and openness. Xi Jinping, the current vice president and the presumed heir apparent to the top position of general secretary of the party, was just 26 at the time of the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, which launched the reform and openness policies. Li Keqiang, the presumptive replacement for Wen Jiabao as premier in 2013, is two years younger than Xi Jinping. Within the Politburo, if the age limits now in place are adhered to, seven of the nine members of the standing committee of the Politburo will have to step down to be replaced by younger leaders. And the same is true for over 40 percent of the full 25 members of the Politburo.
The sixth generation leaders that will take over in 2022 — 11 years from now — will be too young to have any memories of the great Cultural Revolution. These leaders will be confronted with the never ending sets of problems generated by China’s rapid transformation, but their responses will be influenced by their different generational perspectives, their greater familiarity with the outside world, and China’s growing integration in the global economy.
It flies in the face of experience and common sense to assume that leaders with such different formative experiences will respond to the problems of managing China using canned formulas inherited from their predecessors. I came to Washington to join the U.S. Government at the end of President Eisenhower’s first term. Then, after several overseas assignments, I returned to Washington during the Kennedy administration. It was like coming back to a different country, in no small measure because of the greater youthfulness of the ruling group.
The economic and social changes that will occur in China over the course of the next two or three decades, including the continued emergence and maturing of the middle classes, will confront China with strong and perhaps irresistible pressures for systemic political reforms. China’s leaders have proven to be remarkably adaptable in adjusting the system to accommodate necessary changes. For the last 30 years China has undergone major government reorganizations every five years for three decades. Ministries have been created or abolished. State agencies have been turned into quasi-private corporations. Conceivably, this same adaptability could eventually emerge in the political sphere.
Elsewhere in Asia, authoritarian governments that have remained open to the outside world and have been active participants in the global economy have, without exception, given rise to representative forms to governance after 30 to 40 years of rapid economic development. China has only moved 15 to 25 years along this path. To the extent that these Asian models have any relevance for China, this means that it’s premature to expect significant systemic political change to occur in China in the near future. Indeed, if we want positive political change to occur in China, this will more likely to be the result, not of outside pressure, but of continued rapid economic growth and generational changes within the Chinese leadership.
Inevitably, the world will be watching what happens.
Stapleton Roy is currently Vice Chairman of Kissinger Associates, Inc., Chairman of the Hopkins-Nanjing Advisory Council.