Edward S. Steinfeld: China’s Other Revolution

In a forum in Boston Review on political and social change in China, Edward S. Steinfeld, Professor of Political Science at MIT, argues that we should look to South Korea and Taiwan as examples of where China is headed politically:

Those who doubt that profound change and harsh repression can coexist in China should look to the history of South Korea and Taiwan. In January 1987, just seven years after a democratic uprising was crushed in the South Korean city of Gwangju and a few months before the military-backed regime would yield to popular demands for open elections, student protestors were being summarily rounded up by the police. At least one of the students died during interrogation. That same year Taiwan’s Kuomintang government announced the end of 38 years of martial law, a key step toward the establishment of democracy there. But in the months before the announcement, dissenters were still being shipped off, often by secretive military tribunals, to the notorious gulag on Green Island. Crackdowns on opponents, extrajudicial detentions, and violence are often the last-ditch efforts of authoritarian regimes.

Perhaps because of their willingness to use force even in their final days, these regimes can appear impervious to change and determined to remain in power. Given the empirical evidence available in the mid-1980s, one could reasonably have described Taiwan’s single-party state as “flexibly” authoritarian: grudgingly willing to mollify the populace with marginal institutional changes, but prepared to employ the gun to defend its grip on power. No one could have been sure whether the Taiwanese government—or South Korean, for that matter—would hold onto power indefinitely, succumb to violent overthrow precisely because of its resistance to change, or yield peacefully and voluntarily to popular desires for liberalization. The same can be said of China today.

The cases of Taiwan and South Korea also suggest that we should be cautious about the frequent observation that politics in China has lagged economics. Both Taiwan and South Korea, right up until the end of the democratization process, were successful and creative on the economic front but politically retrograde. At minimum the lesson here is that the absence of overt regime change doesn’t tell us much.

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