The “Five Best Books” to Read Now on China

Richard Baum –

The China specialist and UCLA professor says some days he feels genuine admiration for the ability of China’s technocratic leaders to adopt timely social, economic and environmental policies. Other days he shakes his head at the endemic political insecurity and obsessive intransigence of party leaders in China. He chooses five books on obstacles to reform.
Do you want to start with Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition? There’s a comment on the back by Elisabeth Perry of Harvard, that the book ‘directly challenges much of the conventional wisdom about the rise of China…’
Minxin Pei’s book is important because it poses most directly a question that is at the heart of the debate about whether China can survive an entrepreneurial revolution with its political system substantially intact. His argument, in a nutshell, is that a Leninist political party is communism’s ‘original sin’– an innate impediment to transparency and accountability in governance. His argument is interesting and controversial. He suggests that the self-appointed political power monopoly enjoyed by the Chinese Communist Party makes it, in effect, a closed autocratic society, and that such societies, as Lord Acton observed, over time tend to become deeply corrupted in the absence of countervailing power. Pei argues that Chinese communism is unable to overcome its absolutist, conspiratorial origins, its ‘original sin’. This, in turn, makes the party highly suspicious of spontaneous economic and socio-political activity, especially when such activity is organised. Consequently, economic reform in China has spawned not market democracy, but a state-dominated form of bureaucratic capitalism, involving the subordination of private sector initiative to the dictates of the party-state.
According to Pei, China is thus in a ‘trapped transition’. Although its leaders have adopted policies designed to encourage economic growth through enhanced productivity and controlled market competition, the country nevertheless remains trapped within an archaic Leninist political framework from which it cannot seem to escape. Eventually, he concludes, the deepening contradictions between the party’s obsessive desire to retain monopolistic political control and the pluralising pressures of an increasingly open, market-based society will catch up with China’s leaders, leading to some form of systemic paralysis and/or traumatic power transition.
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