Using the 23rd anniversary of Tiananmen as a frame, Perry Link argues that the Chinese government is running out of time in FP:
In 1989 Deng Xiaoping, then China’s paramount leader, made a long-term calculation that is now receiving its most severe test. Deng knew that China’s authoritarian power structure, in which officials at each level are beholden to the people above, had one glaring weak point. Who appoints the person at the very top — where by definition there is no superior to do the appointing? In China before the twentieth century, the seed of the emperor normally performed this function (as so it is even today in North Korea). If Mao had left a healthy son, his regime might have gone this way as well. But Mao had no such heir, and the top spot was left open for jockeying among peers.
Deng, the victor of the Mao succession battle, decided not only to appoint a successor but to lay down a plan that he hoped would institutionalize succession, at least for a few generations of leaders. Deng named the then Shanghai Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, who had successfully managed his city during the nationwide student protests that culminated in the June 4th massacre in Beijing, to general secretary, and named Hu Jintao, who was from a different interest group within the power elite, to succeed Jiang.
On the surface, the leader should display no outward disagreement and pretend one has no ambition other than to answer the call of the masses; and under the surface, serve the interests of the power elite. Bland managers like Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, interchangeable parts in the system, are ideal candidates, no matter how unsatisfying their personalities or governing styles may be to the Chinese people.
Enter Bo Xilai, ambitious, charismatic, flamboyant, and until recently party secretary of the metropolis of Chongqing and member of the Politburo, China’s elite decision-making body. Bo was adept at manipulating Mao-nostalgia as a means to convert popular resentment of corruption into political capital for himself, and, most galling to guardians of the Deng blueprint, appeared ready to skirt any institutionalized arrangement that might block his route to the top. Wang estimates that the elite establishment was ready to slap down Bo even if charges of corruption and wiretapping — and the bizarre, and still mysterious, allegations of murder by his wife — had not emerged.
It is very likely that Xi will ascend to party secretary as Deng intended. Meanwhile, voices from both the left and right in China have been critical of how the party elite removed Bo on technical grounds, thereby cutting off address of deeper questions about luxian, the “general direction” in which China should be headed, of which there appear to be two main possibilities. One is the emergence of a new core of authoritarian power. Many who have this possibility in mind look to China’s military, but the question is deeper than that, and the pattern could emerge from a number of sources.
The other “general direction” would be a move toward modern democratic rule, including elections of officials, civil rights for citizens, and rule of law. The greatest challenge for China’s democratization is how to bring together two levels: an elite of pro-democracy intellectuals, people like the writers and supporters of Charter 08 (a group that includes imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo), and hundreds of millions of ordinary people who have been angered by corruption, inequality, injustice, and environmental destruction. China’s rulers’ huge expenditure on “stability maintenance,” which includes hired thugs and Internet monitors in addition to conventional police and prisons, have brought them considerable success in keeping these two levels separate.
I agree with Link, provided the stipulation that you look at this over the right time-frame. 5 or 10 years from now, China is going to have to choose a direction. Waffling only works for so long.