Decoding Chinese Politics

Intellectual Debates and Why They Matter

For many observers, China’s system for choosing its leaders, as well as the decisions those leaders make, seem to exist in a “black box.” Speculating about the goings-on in that box has been a passion of China watchers since the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949. But reading the proverbial tea leaves is a highly inexact science. The process is opaque for good reason: the popular legitimacy of a one-party authoritarian regime depends in no small part on the outward appearance of inner consensus. To most casual observers, therefore, Beijing projects an almost monolithic sensibility.

Of course, neither the Chinese Communist Party nor the polity it governs is a monolith. By many accounts, bubbling under the calm exterior is a rich and occasionally volatile political tradition. But putting a public face on that tradition, and attempting to track the internal debate within the party, has proven difficult. Part of that difficulty is learned: the result of suppressed debate. The limited democracy movements of the late 1970s, 1986, and, most notoriously, 1989, all had their share of victims among the intelligentsia who stepped forward with public criticism of the ruling regime. But not all intellectual debate is so clearly “outside the lines.” Some public discussion of issues that are usually kept within the black box (the pace of social and economic change, for example) is a subtle dance among political thinkers, policymakers, and the general public. In these cases, the outside world is offered a rare glimpse of internal debate within the party.

This report examines the public debate in China in the several years prior to the 17th Party Congress in October 2007. It analyzes some key trends in China’s economic and social development and has some important actionable insights for those outsiders looking to gauge China’s political and economic direction for the next five years and beyond. While China’s black box may still seem relatively impenetrable, this report provides some important texture to its surface.

Melissa Murphy is a research associate with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies. Prior to joining CSIS, she was a China specialist with the international law firm Dewey Ballantine, focusing on U.S.-China economic and trade relations.

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Charles Freeman
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Economic and Trade Affairs

Melissa Murphy