In Foreign Policy, John Lee looks at why the “reform period” in China has lasted so long with no end in sight:
China’s leaders since Deng have been telling the world that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will soon relinquish its dominance over the Chinese economy and society, and is assiduously laying the groundwork for fundamental economic and political reform, and eventually democracy — but only after it recovers from the chaos and destruction of the Mao years. After all, Deng famously declared that democracy was “a major condition that emancipated the mind.” But the reform period of 31 years has exceeded Mao’s 27 years of terrible rule. The excuse that the party will “let go” its economic and political power but for the ghost of Mao and his terrible legacy is wearing thin.
So, first things first. Why should the party “let go” more power and instead work toward building institutions that will aid political reform and eventually democracy in China? Because in one important respect, authoritarian China is failing: While the Chinese state is rich and the party powerful, civil society is weak and the vast majority of people remain poor.
But aren’t China’s leaders doing a magnificent job of at least leading the country toward prosperity? After all, since Deng’s reforms, Chinese GDP has grown 16-fold. And isn’t this ultimately for the benefit of most of the country’s people? Not in China’s model of investment-led state corporatism hatched after the 1989 Tiananmen protests to preserve the economic power and relevance of the party.