China's Conflict Between Economic and Political Liberalization

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China’s impressive growth record has been facilitated by a unique relationship between Beijing and the provinces that encourages experimentation and incentivizes officials for driving economic growth.
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China’s impressive growth record has been facilitated by a unique relationship between Beijing and the provinces that encourages experimentation and incentivizes officials for driving economic growth—and for the most part this helped maintain political stability. While these arrangements spurred economic liberalization, political liberalization was put on hold. But rapid growth has not spared China from increasing social unrest given frustrations over widening disparities both in opportunities and outcomes and mounting conflicts over use of resources. Some now question the regime’s capacity to deal with society’s concerns. This paper examines recent politically charged events that have intensified discussions about the potential for economic and political reforms that would be acceptable to the Communist Party and still supportive of China’s broader objectives.

Three decades of economic liberalization have restored much of the vibrancy that China last displayed two centuries ago when it accounted for a significant share of the world’s economy. Yet its political system seems to have been caught in a time warp. Ever since the Arab Spring began dominating headlines, there has been renewed speculation that social unrest could foment a similar cascade of change in China. Even Premier Wen Jiabao concluded at last March’s National People’s Congress that dealing with pressures for political reform will be a high priority for the future leadership. But the Bo Xilai affair significantly escalated what is at stake by casting the issue as a conflict between reformers and those wedded to the past. This is now seen as influencing the transition to China’s next generation of senior leaders.

Discussions about China’s political evolution are normally grounded in debates over democratization, military security, and human rights. More attention, however, needs to be given to whether the nature of China’s economic transformation, supported by its unique form of regional decentralization, has contributed to a stalemate regarding political liberalization.

Read the full paper in the SAIS Review.

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In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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