The People’s Republic of China has an authoritarian political system controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since 2007, Chinese authorities have tightened official controls over the media and civil society, and backtracked on legal reforms they enacted in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Following the 1949 revolution, party leaders led by Mao Zedong attempted to remold China. They imposed communist ideology, a state-run economy, and absolute party-state control over citizens’ lives. Such policies led to mass famine (the Great Leap Forward, 1958–60) and severe political turmoil (the Cultural Revolution, 1966–76).
In the late 1970s, the Chinese leadership under Deng Xiaoping launched the modern reform period. They relaxed economic and ideological controls, fueling an unprecedented 30-year long economic boom. China has experienced a ten-fold expansion in GDP, replaced Japan as the second-largest economy in the world, and emerged as a world power.
These reforms are transforming the country. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Urbanization is proceeding rapidly, with some 140 million migrants traveling annually between their rural hometowns to China’s booming cities in search of work. The freedom enjoyed by ordinary Chinese citizens with regard to core personal decisions such as where to live and work has greatly expanded. Commercialized media and new technologies have given rise to a cadre of activist journalists and bloggers who push against the boundaries of state censorship, often exposing corrupt or illegal behavior on the part of local officials.
Central government leaders, however, remain adamantly opposed to fundamental political reform. They reject free speech and representative democracy. They repress peaceful protests with brutal force, as with the Tiananmen student demonstrations in 1989 and the Falun Gong spiritual movement after 1999. Moderate calls for political reform are met with lengthy prison terms. For example, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year sentence for his role in organizing Charter 08, a petition signed by thousands of Chinese citizens and intellectuals calling for greater political and civil rights.
Despite opposition to significant political change that might threaten their control, central government authorities have pursued a range of limited reforms to fight corruption and abuse of power in local government. Since the 1980s, Chinese authorities have adopted electoral reforms that allow a restricted level of citizen participation in the selection of local officials. Starting in the 1990s, Chinese authorities took steps towards professionalizing the judiciary and allowing citizens a degree of legal redress for grievances against officials. Some officials have called for deeper reforms. In a series of speeches given in 2010, Premier Wen Jiabao criticized the excessive centralization of political power, warning that “without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform will be lost and the goal of modernization will not materialize.”
Other authorities, however, have blocked these calls. Propaganda officials censored some of Premier Wen’s remarks, while state-run media outlets parroted the official line regarding the need to avoid “Western” political reforms. Positive reform efforts have been undercut when they appear to be on the verge of generating substantial change. For example, authorities moved to exert tighter control over village elections in 1999, after local activists and officials attempted to extend such competitive polls up to township governments. In the last several years, central party authorities have made similar, increasingly concerted efforts to curtail the legal and judicial reforms of the prior decade.
As in the past, Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on dissent in advance of high-profile events, or in the wake of overseas developments. Officials engaged in widespread detentions of activists and petitioners prior to both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Following the 2011 Arab Spring, Chinese authorities commenced one of the most sustained and widespread crackdowns in decades. Authorities launched extrajudicial detentions of public interest activists and lawyers, increased harassment of journalists, and began interfering with virtual private network (VPN) services used by many citizens to evade extensive state internet controls.
However, tougher Chinese policies with regard to the media, civil society, and legal institutions are not simply the result of transitory state concerns with regard to specific, one-time events. Rather, they represent a more general effort, extending back several years, to curtail some of the limited reforms undertaken in recent decades.
China’s future remains uncertain. Central Chinese authorities have chosen to prioritize party control at the expense of building autonomous legal and political institutions. This carries real risks for social stability. Rapid economic development is generating increased demands by citizens to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and for authorities to more fairly respond to their grievances. In the absence of gradual and substantive steps toward political reform, this pressure is instead being channeled into mass citizen petitions and protests, populist official rhetoric, and nationalistic internet forums—unruly and imperfect release valves that erupt periodically (and with increasing intensity), but that fail to address the roots of building social discontent.