As Xi Jinping prepares to succeed President Hu Jintao, a group of 73 Chinese intellectuals has released an open letter on the internet warning that the failure to enact political reform could lead to widespread social unrest:
“If reforms to the system urgently needed by Chinese society keep being frustrated and stagnate without progress, then official corruption and dissatisfaction in society will boil up to a crisis point and China will once again miss the opportunity for peaceful reform, and slip into the turbulence and chaos of violent revolution,” they wrote. [ . . . ]
“China’s 100 years of bloody and violent history—especially the painful and tragic lesson of the decade-long Cultural Revolution—show that once we go against the tide of democracy, human rights, rule of law and constitutional government, the people will suffer disaster and social and political stability will be impossible,” the letter said.
The courage, dignity and wisdom of the intellectuals signing this letter should be an inspiration to us all. Nevertheless, as the signatories themselves no doubt know, it will be very hard for China’s rulers to introduce political reforms. If the party were to lift the lid, the strong, pent-up forces and bitter conflicts now largely contained by the authoritarianism of Chinese politics would break out into the open in unpredictable and quite possibly dangerous ways.
Foreigners particularly should not assume that a more democratic China would be a more peaceful China on the world stage. Nationalism is a potent force, and in many cases today the Chinese leadership takes a more restrained course with the country’s neighbors than hawkish public opinion favors.
It’s understandable that the people at the top of the Chinese system would hesitate before embracing change. Not only is the current system making many of them rich beyond their wildest dreams, but the risks involved in any change are also breathtaking. Considering the stakes in a country with a population of 1.4 billion and a bloody 20th-century history of foreign and civil war, revolution, and outbreaks of mass violence, from the Boxer Rebellion to the Red Guards, any sane person would hesitate before setting China on course for change.
But the longer they hesitate, the greater the risks. Without gradual and orderly reform, the pressures and fissures will only grow, and China will have an increasingly harder time modernizing its politics. Offering the emperor sage counsel is a traditional function of Chinese scholars; in a country that increasingly hopes to draw on its Confucian heritage advice like this from senior scholars carries weight. Let’s hope China’s new leaders pay close attention to the advice that some of the country’s most serious and thoughtful people are giving them. The industrial revolution in China is among the most momentous and complex transformations the world has ever seen; there is no safe path through something this big, this fast and this new, but the alternatives to measured reform and step by step political change do not offer much hope.