NYT Correspondent: Substantive Political Change in China Unlikely Anytime Soon

At the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations' 10 year anniversary gala, Edward Wong and Orville Schell discuss the trajectory of China since Mao's death. (23 min., 41 sec.)

Former New York Times Beijing Bureau Chief Edward Wong says that today there are looming questions over whether there will be serious changes to China’s economic model, but there’s less uncertainty when it comes to reform of the political system.

“I think that 10 years ago, maybe among my predecessors, that would have been a question they kept asking themselves when they were covering China,” Wong said at Asia Society in New York last week. “But now, I think if you ask any serious journalist in China or anyone studying China, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who's really looking at whether there's serious political change about to take place within the ranks of the [Communist] Party.”

Wong, who reported for the New York Times in Beijing from 2008 to 2016, described the Communist Party’s “adaptive authoritarianism,” noting how it has survived by constantly reforming since the Mao Zedong era (1949-1976). Now, the government is facing a “testing period” as to whether it can push through difficult market reforms, but few are pushing hard for political change. Speaking with Director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations Orville Schell, Wong added:

One thing at the end of my time in China I concluded was that it's impossible to really make conclusions about where China is heading. I did think that too often journalists, and maybe other people who write about China, tend to frame things in terms of the legitimacy of the Party. I can probably show you ten or a dozen stories I've written where somewhere in the nut graf we say, “Oh this might bring into question the legitimacy of the Party for many Chinese.” But after having traveled around China to many corners of it, I have to say that Party rule is fairly strong in terms of the way that the people have faith in the central government. I think many Chinese have faith in the top leaders, the people in Zhongnanhai [the central Chinese leadership compound]. They complain about local officials, and the Party leadership knows about these complaints. Many Chinese will not question whether the Party is bringing the country in the right direction, or at least has the best interests of the country at heart.

In the above video, Wong and Schell discuss China’s trajectory since Mao, the “missionary zeal” many Americans have to change the country, and the political and economic prospects in coming years.

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.