China: A 'Shelf Life' for Stability?

Panelists assess prospects for reform at critical juncture

NEW YORK, June 21, 2012 — In light of China's recent political scandals, its upcoming change in leadership, and its growing presence in the international arena, China-watchers are increasingly skeptical about the country's stability and the future of its political and economic reforms.

A panel discussion here at Asia Society New York — comprised of Ian Johnson, Beijing-based writer and former bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal, Roderick MacFarquhar, Leroy B. Williams Professor at Harvard University and moderator Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations — tackled these questions head-on, beginning with a look at China's "extreme stability" in the past 20 years, rooted in the Deng-era focus on development. As Johnson summarized the positive aspects of that focus, "the economic growth paves over a lot of cracks. I think for a lot of people life has gotten a lot better. There are opportunities that are opened up for so many people that they are willing to look away from the problems in the society."

Schell questioned whether this legitimacy has a "shelf life," suggesting that things may be changing in the country today. According to MacFarquhar, today's China is craving civil society and reform, particularly since "it was opened in the past 30 years to the outside world more than it had ever been in 3000 years." As a Beijing-based journalist, Johnson observed, "the sense of social spirit is lacking. There is a lack of cohesive sense of society, or a cohesive sense of nation. It creates very siloed individual lives." He sees this spiritual hunger encouraging the growth of alternative education in some cities: "Parents are sending their children to Montessori schools because they believe that this creates a sense of cooperation."

The panel covered the myriad challenges facing China's incoming leadership, including the perils of rapid urbanization, migration, corruption, income inequality and the internal fractions within the Communist Party. From this list of often unpredictable issues, all agreed that it is paramount for the Chinese leadership to create a basis of trust among society, recognize the importance of empowering its people, and foster a vibrant civil society.

"The next 10 years of reform will be greater than that of the past 30 years," Johnson predicted. Nevertheless, the panel agreed that they do not see any drastic steps towards political reform. "Inertia is important in politics," said MacFarquhar, "No one wants to be the Gorbachev of China."

Reported by Peony Lui

Video: Highlights from the program (6 min., 39 sec.)


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