Despite the considerable resilience demonstrated by the Chinese authoritarian regime, its power experiences continuous atrophy. With the weakening of the totalitarian control imposed on Chinese society, the current stability-maintenance system has been decreasing in its effectiveness.
There are two sharply contrasting and controversial perspectives on China’s near- to medium-term future: top-level reform and bottom-up revolution.
China is heading toward a tipping point, with two likely scenarios for how a political opening will come about. Most Chinese intellectuals think that only gradualism—“slow and steady,” step-by-step reform—can offer China a safe and feasible path toward liberal democracy. But they are wrong. Instead of “taking it slow,” China should shun gradualism and opt instead for a quick transition powered by early nationwide elections.
Although the Chinese Communist Party has tried to institutionalize the political system in the reform era, such efforts have been hampered by the Maoist legacy. To cope with challenges from the society, the CCP mainly relies on a highly centralized and resource-intensive weiwen system, and shows little respect for institutional differentiation and formal procedures.
Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have turned against many of the legal reforms they themselves had enacted in the late 20th century. Lawyers have come under increased pressure. Political campaigns warning against rule-of-law norms have rippled through the courts. And central authorities have massively increased funding for extralegal institutions aimed at curtailing and suppressing citizen discontent.