China Enters the Counter-Reform Era

Thanks to Don for inviting me to join his blogging effort!  Below, I’ll lay out my argument that China is entering a “Counter-Reform Era.” (This is just one thread in my recent book, if you’re interested, check it out.)

Core economic, ideological, and political givens that have held sway in China over recent decades are beginning to buckle.  Economically, China is slowing down after decades of rapid growth. The go-go years of 10% annual GDP growth are fading into history.  Politically, post-1978 norms (such as collective leadership, avoidance of anything resembling a cult of personality) are coming undone. Ideologically, China is pivoting inward.

We’re already familiar with the idea that when dramatic shifts occur across multiple areas in China, we refer to the birth of a new “era.” Post-1949 China is often referred to as the “Maoist era.” Similarly, post-1978 China is generally called the “reform era.”  Heck, Chinese authorities themselves recognize a new “era” is dawning. They’ve added the phrasing “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) to the Party charter and constitution.

But that leaves key question—what should we call it? “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” doesn’t exactly leap off the tongue.

As an initial step, recognize that slower economic growth, erosion of political norms like collective leadership, and tighter ideological controls on “foreign influences” (and the Party’s pivot towards neotraditionalism/Confucianism), are all reversals of key “reform era” characteristics. Just on the basis of that alone, you’ve got a pretty good argument that “Counter-Reform Era” is an appropriate term.

But for the historically inclined, there’s another intriguing angle as well. Think late 19th-century imperial Russia.  Following Russia’s national humiliation in the Crimean War, which revealed the extent which it had fallen behind Western Europe, the 1860s & 1870s saw the tsarist regime implement extensive economic, social, and political reforms – the period of the “Great Reforms.” Examples include: land reform, an easing of censorship, expansion of higher education + support for overseas study, legal reforms (introducing a degree of judicial independence) and limited political reforms (creation of local representative councils).  Importantly, these did not alter the core political nature of the Russian imperial state. The tsar (just like the CCP today) remained above the law, with no constraints on his power.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting for China types. That period ended. After 1881, Tsar Alexander III became convinced that such reforms were dangerous. [In no small part b/c his father Alexander II—who had initiated them, was assassinated in 1881 by radical populists].  As a result, the 1880s/1890s saw the tsarist regime steadily reverse many earlier reforms—tightening censorship, jailing opponents, eviscerating local councils, & building a tight police state (“social stability w/Russian characteristics”).  This is the period of the “Counter-Reforms.”

The point of all of this isn’t to argue that late tsarist Russia is identical to early 21st-century China. It isn’t.  Rather, it is just to demonstrate that a period of relative liberalism in an autocratic state can be followed by something other than progression to democratic rule (as in Taiwan and South Korea).  And we already have terminology that we use to describe that shift: “reform” and “counter-reform.”

[Sure, you can use the failure of Guangxu’s 1898 100-Day Reforms to make a similar argument. But the problem with that as an analogy is how short it was—doesn’t compare to the reversal of decades-long trends in China today. The imperial Russia example is better for that.]

One last reason why I think “Counter-Reform Era” is appropriate. Here, I’ll quote from my book: “The key result of the late 19th-century Czarist counter-reform was to radicalize society. The imperial turn against law convinced moderates that gradual reform was impossible.”  And that’s why I’m so worried—I don’t think these trends set China up for anything like a stable transition to anything better. In the short-term, it looks like a more hardline authoritarian state. But in the long-term, I think it is planting the seeds of deep instability.

Again, if you’re interested (and this is only one small thread from the book), you can find it here.