Political reform: China's next modernization?
China boasts the world's second-largest economy, delivering double-digit economic growth on a seemingly permanent basis. It pursues the world's most ambitious program of military modernization, emphasizing the projection of power beyond its borders. It is the planet's biggest steel producer, car market, commodity consumer and exporter. As President Hu Jintao prepares to visit Washington next week, his country's model of authoritarian development looks unstoppable - with troubling implications for American primacy in world affairs.
Yet China may soon bump up against the model's limitations. An aging demographic profile means the population's share of prime workers has already peaked. Resource constraints and environmental devastation will increasingly complicate economic development. Worried neighbors across Asia are moving closer to America and each other, challenging China's room to maneuver in its region.
But it is China's political model that may be the most significant obstacle to the country's economic modernization. This would invert the belief that China's developmental dictatorship has catalyzed its economic dynamism. But it is the opinion of no less than the country's No. 2 official, Premier Wen Jiabao.
In remarkable public comments last summer, Wen said Chinese officials "must continue to liberate their thinking and make bold explorations" in reform. Without "reform of the political system," he argued, "it will be impossible for the goal of economic reform and modernization to be realized." China must reverse "the excessive concentration of unrestrained power" and "create conditions for the people to criticize and supervise the government. . . . People's democratic rights and legitimate rights must be guaranteed" for economic growth to continue.
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