What Lies Ahead for the Modern Dragon?

06/18/2012 11:04 am ET

June Dreyer posits four scenarios for the future of China in her book, China's Political System: Modernization and Tradition. These four scenarios each have some reality to them, as Dreyer notes. One can argue in favor of any of the four scenarios Dreyer discusses in her book, as they relate to the future of China. The intricacies of this topic will be salient to United States foreign policy making for years to come, especially considering the economic interdependence of the world's two largest economies.

The first scenario is: "party and government will re-impose Beijing's control over society." This perspective deals with China's authoritarian command structure. Those who believe in this theory look at the history of advances in the market economy under a centralized command structure that was able to correct some issues such as inflation and maldistribution more swiftly, than in a political system where power is fragmented. I think there is some merit to this scenario. The governing party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has been able to reassert control for itself through propaganda, namely anti-corruption campaigns, which in turn have curried favor with the masses. This has allowed the party to maintain a centralized command structure, which squashes individual liberty, in order to realize economic growth.

The second scenario is: "the present government will be overthrown and replaced by a popularly chosen, reformist regime." This is arguably a very unrealistic perspective, and one that directly conflicts with the first one. However, proponents of this theory argue that certain events, such as instability in the rural areas caused by farmer protests, as well as "runs on banks," will inevitably lead to some kind of revolt, peaceful or violent. While it is true that the peasants in China's rural areas have experienced hardship, in contrast, others in China are enjoying financial prosperity, and the solidification of the power by the ruling party is very much a reality, therefore any kind of revolution, at least in the near future, is not realistic.

The third scenario is: "there will be an evolution toward a more liberal regime, that is market-oriented and tolerant of a variety of political views." This is very much a textbook perspective. Scholars of democratization, the study of the process of regimes in the world transitioning to democratic rule, would argue that economic prosperity comes to a country, in part through the development of a strong middle class, then gradually that country's political system will become more democratic. There are many instances of this occurring in other parts of the world. However, in the case of China, this is not very likely for a couple reasons. The economic growth China is experiencing is largely unrivaled when compared any other point in its history. In addition, the party is so engrained in the daily life of the Chinese that it would be hard to see that not existing, even if the process away from it, were a gradual one.

The fourth and final scenario is: "party and government will remain in a kind of paralysis as power continues to devolve to provinces and regions, with a range of variations within each." This scenario basically foresees power devolving, where the concentration of the power is held at the provincial level, with authoritarian elements in some governments and some more reformist elements located in others. This is the most unlikely of the four, in my opinion. The Chinese, while having provincial and local-level governments, tend to favor a centralized system of power. In addition, as long as the power structure remains authoritarian in nature, then power is unlikely to devolve.

Of the four scenarios that June Dreyer posits, I believe the first is the most likely. For the near future, the party is likely to maintain control over economic reforms and gradually be able to solidify more power. What has occurred in China in the last three decades is largely unprecedented. An authoritarian command structure, labeled as communist, has been able to move a country toward 10 percent GDP per annum, a unique scenario which has changed the face of its people and its country forever. While the CCP has worried about any challenges to its reign over the years, arguably it will likely remain very stable in the near future in large part due to its economic growth, hiding what lies behind the facade.