Reading China's Fortune Cookie


From Revolution Through Reform

By Kenneth Lieberthal

Norton 498pp $30

These are hard times for China watchers. Some of the most widely accepted beliefs about the country's political system are being put to the test. For instance, sinologists have long told us that the key to China's future was whether or not reformist Deng Xiaoping would manage to outlive his conservative rival, Chen Yun. In April, Chen died at age 89. So Deng wins. But with the 90-year-old Deng himself on his deathbed, outlasting Chen doesn't seem to matter that much anymore.

Kenneth Lieberthal, former director of the University of Michigan's Center for Chinese Studies and cne of America's most respected China experts, is surely aware of the difficulty of anticipating what will happen in the Middle Kingdom. But he isn't shrinking from the task. As the jockeying for national power breaks into the open, Lieberthal's new book, Governing China, attempts to predict the direction the world's largest nation will take under whatever leaders emerge.

Lieberthal goes far beyond the question of succession to describe how the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist Party manage to rule one-quarter of the world's people. He presents two ways of looking at the system. One focuses on the formal organizations--the state and the party. A second and superior approach, according to Lieberthal, highlights a power network that is "virtually invisible on China's organization charts." Here, formal structures and hierarchies mean little, since power derives from force of personality and connections. "The 25 to 35 individuals who...oversee virtually all sectors of work and politics personally redefine the real rules of the game on an ongoing basis," Lieberthal writes.

According to this logic, government and party officials owe allegiance less to their nominal superiors and more to their informal patrons. Lieberthal tells how he once got permission from a top official of a state-owned store to inspect certain documents. But that decision was then vetoed by the head of the store's personnel department, who, by virtue of his place in the informal network, was able to refuse the order of his "superior."

With personality and connections playing so large a role, China has made little progress in developing a stable political system that checks its top leaders' power. "Those at the highest levels of the Chinese system are above the law," Lieberthal writes. "Indeed, for the most part what they say practically has the force of law."

At the same time, the state itself, as Lieberthal describes it, is far less dictatorial than many outsiders believe. More than 15 years of economic reform have severely weakened both the formal organizations and the informal network. As a result, governing in China today involves almost continuous negotiations among national, provincial, and local leaders. This, Lieberthal says, is best described as "fragmented authoritarianism."

This fragmentation helps to explain how difficult it is for China's leaders to address their biggest problems. For instance, no consensus exists about the next stage of economic reforms. Central-government leaders such as President Jiang Zemin have wanted to slow economic growth to control runaway inflation. But others, including a great number of powerful local leaders, say the enemy is unemployment, not inflation, and that the best way to avoid social unrest is through faster economic growth and more jobs. A deadlock has left ambitious reforms on hold.

Of course, provincial leaders, who often have top positions at local companies, also stand to make a lot of money from faster growth. In weighing the power of these bosses, Lieberthal misses an opportunity to look at how their decisions can be influenced by ordinary Chinese. Since the government forbids people from organizing, most Chinese have few opportunities to shape laws and policies that come down from on high. But once Beijing issues its orders, the rules have to be implemented at the local level. That's where citizens can have some influence.

Lieberthal also doesn't delve much into the growing influence of China's legislatures, such as the National People's Congress. While he dismisses the NPC as still largely ceremonial, other scholars say it is hardly the rubber-stamp parliament it once was. For instance, one official connected to the State Council, or Cabinet, in private has complained bitterly about rival officials from the NPC, who had the nerve to inform him that they, not the State Council, get to write the laws. And last March, a record number of NPC delegates voted against Jiang's handpicked nominees for Vice-Premier.

Still, at a time when so much confusion about China exists, Governing China provides valuable lessons--for both the general public and American policymakers. For instance, during the fight over intellectual-property rights between the U.S. and China a few months ago, a U.S. trade official said he couldn't understand why Beijing was unable to enforce its laws against counterfeiting. Of course the central government could get the locals to do what it wanted, the U.S. official said. After all, "it's a police state." It's that sort of overstated view of China's political system that Lieberthal's book can help change.

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