The Magazine


May 24, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 34 • By ARTHUR WALDRON
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Once the dynastic-style Chinese system begins to come apart, moreover, it is extremely difficult to reconstruct. China for the first fifty years of this century was roiled by a struggle over political authority, never far from the surface and regularly exploding in civil wars. Starting as coups -- relatively self-contained struggles within the elite -- these internal conflicts expanded until by the late 1940s the fight between the Nationalists and Communists engulfed the country. The Communist victory, however, solved nothing. While Mao lived, the problems of economic and democratic transformation were frozen by his personal authority. But with twenty years now of thaw, they are coming to life again, and as the demonstrations this year and of a decade ago make clear, they once again involve the population. Even if the Chinese ruling group were unanimous in its interests and views, which most clearly it is not, it could not hold back the tide.

Will things work out better this time? Reasons for optimism are not hard to find. China is ready for democratization. Its people are mostly homogenous ethnically, educational levels are higher than ever before, incomes are rising, and famine no longer threatens. The programs the dissidents advocate are by and large both realistic and responsible. So a political transition in China along the lines of what has been seen in places like Spain and Poland and Taiwan and Korea would probably succeed, eventually leading to a government not unlike India's, though perhaps less fragmented.

Such a government would have a popular mandate to confront China's besetting economic problems, something the current regime lacks. Democratic political reform, in other words, might initiate a virtuous circle that would lead to economic reforms as well, and a general rise in welfare. But if the palpable popular anger vented in the Beijing demonstrations underlines the pressing need for such reforms, the government's role in the protests suggests reforms will not be forthcoming. That will mean, unfortunately, growing political chaos.

The Chinese word for such chaos, luan, is regularly used by the regime to describe the peaceful mass democracy movement of ten years ago. The Tiananmen Square demonstrations, however, could have been ended peacefully had the government been willing to make a political breakthrough. (In fact, the government of Zhao Ziyang wanted to do just that, but was replaced, at the order of Deng Xiaoping, by the current administration of Jiang Zemin.) Had that breakthrough taken place, China today would be close to achieving what Japan managed a century ago: genuine political modernization.

But China may resemble Indonesia first. Beijing's recent atavistic turn toward street violence -- real luan -- suggests that the story will have a tragic ending. Chinese governments have regularly beaten the anti-foreign drum, with catastrophic results for themselves and sometimes their neighbors as well. If this is happening once again, then Washington can forget about engagement and the happy scenarios that accompany it: The task will be to work with our democratic allies to keep the peace and weather any storm, while hoping that the Chinese, like the Indonesians, will finally embrace genuine political change.

Arthur Waldron is Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.