Jeffrey Wasserstrom: A Reformist Chinese Leader? Stop Fooling Yourself

tags: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China, Time Magazine, reform



Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

For those of us who have tracked Chinese political trends since the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping came to power, reading the news about China these days can prove strangely disorienting. One week, we’ll be struck by a slew of stories, on everything from fast trains to record growth rates, which underscore how different China is than it was when Deng first launched his reforms. The next week, though, we’ll be struck just as powerfully by a sense of eerie familiarity. Headline after headline — about the intractability of corruption, the death of a watermelon vendor or a petitioner’s desperate attempt to draw attention to this plight by detonating an explosive device at a Beijing airport — seem just like those we came across a few years or even a couple of decades ago.

Last week, things got especially strange because a big we’re-in-new-territory and a significant here-we-go-again China story hit simultaneously. In the former category, there was the release of new Pew Global Attitudes Project figures showing just how many people around the world are now convinced China is or soon will be the leading global superpower. Of the many stories that triggered déjà vu, one of the most significant told of Xu Zhiyong, a moderate campaigner for civil rights and the rule of law and whistle-blower on official corruption, who has been detained.

It’s worth remembering, where the Pew numbers are concerned, that when Deng took over a country, which was still reeling from the tumult of the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966–76), not only did he make the need to modernize China his mantra, but many Americans wished him Godspeed. The main U.S. worry then was about a weak China unable to feed itself, and an unstable China that might prove a wild-card actor in global affairs. There was little thought that China could one day go head to head with America. There was also a lot of hope in the West that economic development in China would bring democracy in its wake, especially among those convinced Deng would prove a thoroughgoing, rather than just economic, reformer....



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