The People’s Republic of China at Fifty
NBR Analysis vol. 10, no. 4

The People's Republic of China at Fifty

by Robert A. Scalapino
October 1, 1999

China’s future politics are likely to be dominated by authoritarian-pluralism and strengthened international mechanisms for the resolution of issues and the enforcement of agreements will be crucial to China’s positive interaction with regional and global partners. Although the PRC will attempt to counter U.S. efforts, the United States will play an important role in maintaining the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) approaches its fiftieth anniversary, evaluations of its status, including achievements and present and future challenges, will be many and varied. [1] To draw up an accurate balance sheet is not easy.

On the positive side, China is now a nation, with the Communist Party and its military arm having ended the decades of civil war and the multiple political entities that existed in this vast land during the early twentieth century.

A highly centralized state structure has now functioned for five decades, with the Communist Party as the supreme authority. During the Cultural Revolution, to be sure, all institutions were threatened, but recovery was rapid as veterans sobered by their experiences returned to the helm. Recently, organs such as the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference have shown greater vigor and placed a strong emphasis on the rule of law. Certain certified non–Communist parties exist and are permitted carefully supervised roles. Yet no one doubts where power lies.

Equally important, the military in the form of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been controlled by the Party. This does not mean that the military is without voice on the political front. Indeed, key PLA leaders have occupied positions in the supreme party organs and clearly command attention on certain issues. Moreover, in troubled border areas, their authority over regional affairs is significant. Yet, warlordism, the scourge of Nationalist China, has not returned.

Further, through a combination of achievement and intense indoctrination, the New China acquired legitimacy and support from a strong majority of its citizens at an early point. Wedding socialist ideology to nationalism, leaders sought to politicize the masses in a more intensive manner than China had ever known. The results have been mixed, but the Party has had reason to be relatively satisfied—at least until recently. Perhaps most important, by means of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the Chinese leaders have united stability and development in a manner previously unknown in this continent–sized, highly diversified society.

Political Challenges

The political challenges that lie ahead, however, are by no means insignificant, and many of them are connected with development itself. Indeed, China is currently in the midst of a great transition with its outcome unclear. First, the nature of political leadership is undergoing major changes. At the outset of the PRC, the intensely personalized politics so characteristic of…

[1] A recent evaluation by a Chinese scholar is that of Minxin Pei, “Is China Unstable?” Foreign Policy Research Institute, vol. 7, no. 8 (July l999).