Fateful Decisions
Choices That Will Shape China's Future
Edited by Thomas Fingar and Jean C. Oi



Thomas Fingar and Jean C. Oi

Speculating about China’s future is a game that anyone can play and many do. Predictions about China’s future evolution range from breathless (or dire) projections of sustained high rates of growth, ever-increasing power, and inevitable displacement of the United States as leader of the global system, to cautionary (or gleeful) arguments anticipating imminent or inevitable collapse.1 For some analysts and commentators, China is an unstoppable juggernaut; for others, it is a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that is already running out of gas and doomed to fail because of inherent and irreconcilable contradictions. Official Chinese projections of the country’s future envision slower but sustained progress toward high-income status, global leadership, and a more prosperous and harmonious world.2 Others view Chinese actions, intentions, and implications for other countries as more malign.3

For some, China’s evolutionary trajectory is inevitable; it will succeed or fail, act with beneficence or malevolence, and be admired or feared because of what it is (e.g., a Communist Party–led authoritarian state determined to regain China’s rightful place as hegemon of “everything under heaven”). Others eschew essentialist projections in favor of alternative choice-determined trajectories leading to quite different versions of what China would be like and how it would act on the world stage.4 Taken together, the sprawling literature on China’s future contains numerous insights, more than a few thought-provoking ideas, and many confidently asserted judgments and recommendations. But the analyses and predictions are so diverse that it is difficult to determine which are most/least accurate and which assurances, alarms, and advice warrant serious consideration.

No one can predict with precision how China will evolve over the next few years or decades, and this book certainly does not claim to do so. Beijing has articulated numerous, specific, and ambitious economic, social, and other goals that it intends to achieve by 2021 (the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party) and 2049 (the centenary of the People’s Republic of China [PRC]). These official projections of what China will be like in 2021 and 2049 differ from others in two important respects. One is that they constitute de facto promises to the Chinese people for which, at least in theory, party and government officials and institutions can be held accountable. The second is that they provide extensive lists of tasks—albeit without priorities or detailed plans to achieve them—that can be used to anticipate and assess the feasibility and efficacy of proclaimed objectives and policies to achieve them.5

That China will attempt to achieve the ambitious goals outlined in 2012 and reaffirmed in 2017 and 2018 is certain. How they will be pursued and whether they will be achieved are not. Whether all of these goals are realized may be less important than progress in specific areas. Improvements in health care and elder care will probably be more important to ordinary Chinese than the enhancement of military capabilities or the achievement of advanced technology objectives. Significant improvements in education, especially primary and secondary education in rural areas, may be more important for sustained economic growth than reforms intended to reduce debt or tighten central control over local governments. Some objectives must make progress in tandem if they and other linked goals are to be achieved (e.g., advances in secondary education and innovative capabilities will be required, among other things, for the achievement of military modernization and “Made in China 2025” goals), but whether China has the human, fiscal, and institutional capacity to pursue all at the same pace is far from certain.6

That China’s goals are numerous and ambitious does not automatically make them unachievable. China has outperformed expectations during most of the “Reform and Opening” period. But, as with stock portfolios, past performance does not ensure comparable returns in the future. China has greater wealth, experience, and capacity than in any previous period, but the challenges ahead are more numerous, complex, and interconnected than those of the past. Perhaps the biggest and most consequential challenge will be to devise mechanisms and policies to ensure effective implementation of political decisions, to achieve desired outcomes, and to maintain adequate control and coordination without stifling initiative and adaptation to local conditions. We could speculate almost endlessly about what might happen and how different combinations of choices and contingencies could affect the trajectory of China’s evolution, but doing so would, we believe, be less useful than underscoring the magnitude and complexity of the challenges facing PRC leaders and the contingent nature of every choice they make. A primary objective of this book is to identify where to look and what to watch, not to predict cumulative effects in a few years or decades.

China’s future is neither inevitable nor immutable. How it evolves will be determined by how—and how effectively—Chinese actors manage hundreds of complex interconnected challenges. Rather than predicting the net outcome of myriad decisions made at different levels of the system by diverse actors with different interests and objectives, and the impact of changing international conditions, we focus on illustrative challenges and factors likely to shape decisions on how to manage them. Doing so underscores the contingent nature of China’s future. The chapters that follow examine constraints that will shape both policy choices and their efficacy. They ask such questions as: Does China have the resources to achieve Beijing’s ambitious domestic and international goals? Is money the most important constraint, or are human and structural factors even more important? Such questions cannot be answered definitively, but exploring them helps to clarify what to watch and watch for in the years ahead. It also underscores how complex China has become, and how choices made at different levels of the system by actors with diverse interests and information can affect attainment of leadership priorities. The focus on challenges, constraints, choices, and contingencies helps illuminate similarities, differences, interconnections, and contradictions within and across policy arenas. The intended result is greater insight into what is happening and what will shape future trajectories. We hope that the insights generated by this project will help officials, scholars, firms, nongovernmental organizations, and others to anticipate, interpret, and respond to developments in and by China.

The central premise of this edited volume is that specific policy choices will provide important clues about the extent to which top leaders have decided to stick with, reinvigorate, or depart from the model that has yielded success during the past four decades. The choices they make will be shaped by their perceptions of the international situation and judgments about what is required to sustain growth, maintain domestic stability, and preserve party primacy. China’s own actions since the global financial crisis have changed the way other nations perceive PRC intentions and capabilities, and changes in both the international situation and the policies of key actors, notably the United States, have created new obstacles and opportunities affecting what Beijing must and can seek to achieve. Similarly, the cumulative domestic effects of sustained growth and societal change require review and possible revision of priorities and policies adopted earlier in the reform period.

The contributors to this book see many signs that past practices are losing efficacy and that China’s leaders are searching for alternatives that will sustain growth and continue China’s acquisition of wealth and power. There is little question that all party leaders want to do so in a way that preserves party rule and other key features of the existing system. Some seek more rapid and fundamental changes; others worry that deeper reform will undermine Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control. All agree that further reforms are needed, but there appears to be little consensus on what to change, what to preserve, how fast or how far to go in making changes to the system, or even on what the ultimate destination should be. The findings in this book point to both the need for fundamental reforms in many policy areas and a current inclination to defer tackling them for as long as possible. Indeed, much of what Beijing is doing, both internally and externally, seems intended to buy time by reverting to recentralization, tighter control, and the export of excess capacity while hoping that conditions will become more propitious for deeper reform in the future.

The First Forty Years of Reform

The reform era began with conscious choices to abandon the experimentation and campaign style of development that characterized the Maoist era (1949–76) in favor of adopting and sticking with the export-led growth model used by Japan and Taiwan. Deng Xiaoping and other veteran cadres initiated reform by adapting core institutions created in the 1950s. However, to win the policy debate that ensued after Mao’s death, Deng assured other veteran cadres that proposed reforms would enhance the power and legitimacy of the party and preserve the “socialist” character of the state. This constrained reform options and precluded fundamental changes such as privatizing the means of production.

Early in the reform era, policy choices were shaped by a strong sense of urgency to make up for lost time, take advantage of opportunities created by developments in the international system, and restore social stability and party legitimacy. Repurposing existing institutions, even those degraded by the Cultural Revolution, seemed a better way to get the system up and running than delaying the process to design, debate, and deploy new ones. Difficult and fundamental changes were deferred until party and governmental institutions had been resuscitated, the economy was stronger, and leaders were more confident of their ability to manage the risks of transformation.

Deng’s strategy of “feeling for stones to cross the river” facilitated economic growth while sidestepping fundamental institutional reforms. Agricultural reforms led the way because they could be implemented without abolishing collective ownership of the means of production. Markets were reopened and state procurement prices were increased to encourage rural households to grow and sell more of their harvest. The approach produced tangible results, and built confidence and legitimacy. As the need—and opportunities—for further change became apparent, the reform wheel moved forward and more demanding changes were undertaken. Reforms that required more fundamental change of the socialist system, like those in state-owned enterprises (SOE), progressed more slowly.7 Corporate restructuring was undertaken, but SOE reforms were incomplete and remain so today.

Compromises made in the limited SOE reforms (and even in the more successful agricultural reforms) resulted in halfway measures that were politically expedient but created future challenges. Though understandable and defensible when such compromises were adopted, they often made it more difficult to achieve longer-term objectives. After three decades, most of the “easier” reforms had been undertaken. By the first decade of the current century, institutional changes remaining on the to-do list were difficult, demanding, and dangerous to continued party rule. Examples of the latter include movement toward an independent judiciary and rule of law, managing the privatization of land, reforming the hukou (household registration) system, and completing SOE reform. With only difficult reform challenges on the agenda, the process of reform bogged down during Hu Jintao’s “lost decade” (2002–12).8

Architects of the Reform and Opening strategy were determined to limit intraparty disputes and prevent policy disagreements (and personal feuds) from spilling into the streets. Invocation of party discipline was reinforced by systems of promotion designed to limit infighting among factional groups and advocates of different policy prescriptions. These arrangements drove the policymaking process toward consensus and preservation of the status quo.9 This reinforced other measures to ensure stability and policy continuity but also made it harder to tackle more difficult reform challenges. Intended to minimize the danger that policy disputes and personal rivalries would impede steady growth and advances on the quest for modernization, these measures made it increasingly difficult to implement additional structural and procedural reforms essential for sustained growth.

The decision to pursue rapid growth and technological modernization by following the export-led growth model utilized by Japan and Taiwan shaped a wide range of domestic and foreign policies. Following the Japanese model required access to markets, capital, technology, and training that was most readily—or only—available in the US-led “free world.” Gaining access required the acquiescence and assistance of the United States. That, in turn, required moving beyond the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” relationship forged by Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon. To achieve that instrumental goal, Deng acquiesced to Washington’s insistence on maintaining extensive albeit nonofficial relations with Taiwan.10

Reducing the priority of military modernization, symbolized by making the military the last of the “Four Modernizations,” was a foreign policy gesture intended to reassure the United States, Japan, and other essential partners that China’s self-strengthening strategy would not threaten them. It was also a key shaper of domestic investment decisions.11 Indeed, the entire spectrum of domestic and foreign policies was intended to facilitate rapid economic growth, sometimes with unanticipated and undesirable consequences. For example, according higher priority to growth and job creation than to environmental protection has had highly negative and increasingly resented impacts on health and quality of life. The devolution of authority and resources to lower levels of the system allowed for initiative and entrepreneurial behavior but also created opportunities for abuse of power, corruption, and excessive focus on short-term gains at the expense of long-term requirements.12

The economy grew impressively for more than three decades and is still growing at a rate to which most countries can only aspire. But China has changed in fundamental ways over the course of reform. The once overwhelmingly rural population is now more than 50 percent urban. Regional, sectorial, class, educational, and myriad other social divisions have become deeper and more consequential. Interests, needs, and expectations have changed dramatically, reflecting the much greater complexity of the economy and society. People are now better educated, more mobile, and more aware and connected than ever before. Everything has changed and continues to evolve, but changes are occurring throughout China at different rates in different regions and sectors. As a result, many aspects of the system are out of synch and out of balance.13 Interests, expectations, and aspirations have changed more rapidly and extensively than has the political system. Government institutions and instruments have demonstrated a surprising degree of agility and ability to adapt, but they have evolved more slowly than the sectors and activities they facilitate and manage.14 The combination of greater complexity and more difficult challenges is straining the ability of the system to manage the more modern country.

China’s success has elevated it to the status of an upper middle-income country.15 Achieving high-income status is one of China’s centenary goals, but most countries have found it difficult to make the transition.16 Most of the fewer than three dozen countries that have done so have had much smaller populations than China; only Poland, Russia, and South Korea had populations larger than 35 million when they graduated to high-income status, and only Russia had more than 140 million.17 China’s population is ten times larger than Russia’s was. Perhaps more people will make it easier for China to make the transition, but greater difficulty seems more likely. Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is an indicator not only of living standards but also of readiness for transition from autocracy to democracy. As China approaches the threshold for graduation to high-income status (currently $12, 235), it will enter the zone in which many countries have experienced and yielded to internal pressures for more accountable and responsive governance.18 However, allegedly to sustain economic growth, Beijing has reinstituted various forms of political study and issued at least one directive to guard against “political perils,” including promotion of Western constitutional democracy.19

New Constraints and Choices as China Enters Deep-Water Reform

China’s rise was facilitated by good leadership, good policies, and good fortune. All three fortuitous circumstances contributed to the success China has achieved, but at least one (and possibly all three) of these circumstances can no longer be taken for granted. When Beijing launched its reform and opening strategy, China had the field to itself. It was the only large developing country admitted to the “free world” economic system, and its entry occurred when the West was willing to overlook China’s ideology, human rights practices, and other blemishes to secure a large partner in the seemingly endless competition with the Soviet Union. The onset of reform and opening also coincided with a period during which Western firms had the wherewithal and desire to expand abroad, and advances in computers and information technology were making it easier to subdivide production into multiple phases that could be located in many different locations.20

China caught the wave and, for more than a decade, had essentially no competition. Foreign direct investment flowed into the country, which rapidly gained a place, usually at or near the final assembly stage of manufacture, in a growing number of production and supply chains. Its place at the end of production chains often made China the largest export destination of many developing countries, and the largest exporter to the major markets of North America, Europe, and Japan. China’s success, in combination with the demise of the Soviet Union, provided an attractive model for dozens of “nonaligned” nations that had adopted socialist economic systems after gaining independence. When the Cold War ended, most of these countries decided to reform their economic systems and to emulate China’s pursuit of wealth and power through export-led growth. Today China has many formidable competitors with large reserves of low-cost labor.

A second deleterious development is the exhaustion of China’s own once seemingly limitless supply of low-wage workers. During the first four decades of reform, China’s population grew by approximately 380 million people, and hundreds of millions moved from farms to factories. But China will soon reach the so-called Lewis Turning Point at which the ability to increase growth and productivity by moving labor from agriculture to industrial production is exhausted.21 A third development that bodes ill for China’s future is the way in which it has alienated foreign firms by stealing intellectual property, demanding transfers of technology as a condition for establishing or expanding operations in China, and generally failing to honor contracts and trade commitments. Rather than build new facilities in China, companies increasingly forego the advantages of familiarity with conditions in China to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.22

Effective leadership has been critical to China’s rise, but the ability to push through difficult reforms began to wane during the Hu Jintao era. The jury is still out on the question of whether current efforts to overcome structural and contextual challenges by empowering Xi Jinping will prove adequate to manage China’s increasing diversity and multiplicity of interests. As the chapters in this book demonstrate, the existing system has inherent problems that impede effective responses to many economic, political, and societal challenges. To buy time to work on those problems, the party appears to have decided to expand the responsibilities, if not the authority, of its “core” leader, Xi Jinping (see chapter 1 by Alice Lyman Miller). Whether empowering Xi Jinping and reasserting party and central control will be effective is still an open question. But concentrating power puts responsibility for good leadership squarely on Xi. Every “crisis,” such as the scandal over the dissemination of bad vaccines for children, causes ordinary Chinese and elites alike to have doubts about the efficacy of the system and the abilities of its leader.23 The selection of Xi Jinping was supposed to reinvigorate the system after the “lost decade” under Hu and Wen. Xi has more titles and more authority but has yet to demonstrate that he is more effective than his predecessors.

Party leaders have essentially three broad options for addressing the challenges they face. One is to reinvigorate the process of synchronized gradualist and comprehensive reform adopted in the late 1970s by implementing more fundamental reforms (essentially the course that was followed from 1979 through 2008). A second option is to slow and disaggregate the reform process to sustain benefits, fix specific problems, and minimize risks (the apparent strategy during the Hu Jintao administration). The third option is to abandon and replace the logic and modalities of the East Asian developmental model adopted in 1978. What must be done is often unclear, how best to do it is subject to debate, and whether the options chosen will alleviate specific problems or make others worse is hard to anticipate. Moving ahead entails risks, but so does attempting to prolong arrangements that do not and probably cannot sustain growth or satisfy escalating public demands. To a perhaps increasing degree, the Xi administration seems to be using old playbooks to address new challenges.

The success of reform and opening policies has transformed the PRC but left unclear whether China must resume, revise, or retreat from policies that made success possible. American and other foreign officials and analysts who championed engagement as a strategy to transform the People’s Republic into a more modern, prosperous, rule-abiding, and democratic country envisioned—and many still envision—reform as a continuing process in which economic transformation eventually and inevitably leads to political transformation. Their expectation assumed that if China halted reform, modernization and economic growth would stall. A number of Chinese analysts seem to have adopted a similar view, perhaps influenced or rationalized by Marxist theories of development.24

Other Chinese observers—for ideological, political, or self-interested reasons—became troubled by the duration and growing extent of dependence on the US-led, rules-based international order and the extent to which successive waves of reform were taking the country further away from core features of the party-led, centrally administered, authoritarian system envisioned by the founding fathers.25 In their view China was becoming more prosperous, modern, secure, and influential, but it was also becoming less socialist and “less Chinese” (as they defined those concepts). They wanted to slow or halt reform and were willing to accept slower growth as a necessary cost. Over time, their arguments against continuing the approach adopted in the late 1970s were reinforced by perceptions of greater Western hostility toward China, decreased willingness on the part of other countries to accommodate China’s interests, and the consequences of reform-facilitated changes in PRC society. Debate between advocates of these two imputed schools of thought surfaced occasionally but occurred largely behind the façade of party unity that all members of the political elite agreed must be maintained. Determination to prevent inner-party disputes from spilling out into the public arena stalled the reform process and resulted in more attention being paid to balancing interests and preserving cohesion, if not consensus, than to making changes necessary to sustain growth and modernization.

What is happening in China now as well as decisions being made today that will shape China’s future character and behavior for years to come appear to be the product of circular logic and a back-to-the-future approach evincing more confidence in the decisions of past leaders than in the ability of contemporary officials to devise fresh solutions to new challenges. What we mean by “circular logic” can be summarized as an approach to decision-making that begins from the premise that “only the Communist Party can save China” and produces policies designed to preserve the party’s monopoly of political power. This logic allows no room for consideration of whether or under what circumstances or to what extent continued party rule and perpetuation of the institutions and procedures undergirding the party’s monopoly might actually be an impediment to sustained growth and comprehensive modernization. Under this logic anything that imperils or even challenges party rule threatens realization of the China dream.26

When Chinese leaders look to the future, they see a host of daunting challenges, and every challenge is viewed through the lens of implications for continued party rule. As a result, decisions on how to respond to or manage each challenge seem to have a bias for minimizing the threat to the status quo rather than maximizing opportunities and advantages for groups outside the party and the entrenched elite it represents. This approach and bias explain, in part, why Beijing looks to the past for solutions to future problems. A bit of history will help to clarify what we mean.

The Chinese Communist Party was born in the context of intellectual ferment and political competition centered on the quest for an ideology and blueprint to overcome China’s backwardness and vulnerability. Memories, embellished by mythology about China’s past greatness, reinforced preferences for a strong unitary state with a single ideology and greater reliance on the inculcation of shared values and strict social codes than on laws, courts, elections, or other methods of accountability. Marxist ideology, Leninist organizational principles, and Stalinist methods of control and forced modernization fit well with traditional Chinese notions of governance. When the CCP took power in 1949, it established a system of governance designed to achieve rapid modernization under the leadership and control of the party. Mao disrupted the new/old system repeatedly but failed to establish an alternative way to lead and control the diverse and sprawling country.27

“Reform and opening” was adopted and presented as a temporary expedient to jumpstart modernization, make China richer and stronger, and create the foundation for greater reliance on the “scientific socialist” model that had been abandoned by Mao. The steps taken to achieve rapid growth and sustained development included extensive devolution of authority and funds to lower levels of the system, abandonment of central planning, and substantial relaxation of social controls with the twin goals of incentivizing experimentation and innovation as well as producing tangible results that would improve livelihoods and help restore party legitimacy. The approach was highly successful and transformed virtually all aspects of China’s economy and society. But the transformation of China’s economy, society, and relationship with the rest of the world has sharpened the contradiction between those wishing to press on and those wishing to pause, if not halt entirely, key components of the reform process.

We do not know what positions have been championed by individuals or groups at the apex of the system, what arguments they have used to justify or oppose particular policy proposals, or even the scope or intensity of this imputed debate. But we do know that reform has slowed and become more disjointed, that performance has waned as expectations have risen, and that Beijing has reverted to methods of direction and control reminiscent of the pre-reform era. One way to explain these and related phenomena is to view them as the response of leaders worried that slowing growth and rising demands jeopardize social stability and party legitimacy in ways that imperil the quest for wealth and power.

The system and approach adopted after Mao’s death have become victims of their own success. China and the world have changed so much that the arrangements put in place forty years ago are losing efficacy. But there seems to be no consensus on what to preserve, what to reform, and what to replace. In the absence of confidence in—or even the existence of—an alternative model capable of maintaining growth without further entrapping China in relationships and arrangements judged hazardous to continued party rule, Beijing seems to have decided that the most prudent course is to play for time by trying to prolong the efficacy of increasingly outmoded methods and mechanisms.

Illustrative manifestations of this include efforts to reassert party control (including reversal of the separation of party and state initiated by Deng) and mitigate threats to the party from civil society, social media, and calls to subordinate the constitution, the courts, and even foreign NGOs to the party. Another set of back-to-the-future moves includes the tightening of central control over localities and increased “steerage” of the economy (see chapter 2 by Barry Naughton, this volume). Chinese leaders recognize the magnitude and risk inherent in rapidly accumulating challenges but are reluctant to allow events to progress on the trajectories they have followed for more than three decades and fearful of making matters worse by attempting bold reforms. The alternative they appear to have chosen is to revitalize institutions and methods from the past.

During the first decades of the reform era, Beijing devolved considerable authority and resources to lower levels of the system. Doing so unleashed initiatives that contributed to sustained high rates of growth but at the cost of severe environmental degradation and dramatic increases in debt and questionable activities by cadres. As the economy (and society) became more diverse and interconnected, weak coordination across bureaucratic and sectorial boundaries facilitated behaviors now declared to have been “corrupt” and detrimental to growth, social harmony, and system legitimacy.

Rather than adopt reforms that would necessitate fundamental structural changes to address problems, current leaders seek to strengthen party control. Political power and financial resources are being recentralized, central directives restrict the use of funds and mandate activities at local levels, controls have been tightened on social media and civil society more broadly, and the role of state-owned enterprises is increasing. Beijing seemingly feels an urgency to reassert central control to overcome resistance from vested interests, reign in overextended local finance, eradicate corruption, manage urbanization and structure social welfare to prevent localism, preempt destabilizing forces unleashed by new social media, and so on. However, decentralization remains necessary to energize and incentivize local agents, allow market forces to allocate risks and resources efficiently, and promote an innovative economy. Finding the right balance between central control and local discretion is a continuing challenge. China and the Chinese people have changed greatly since 1978, and so have the requirements for effective governance and management of the economy. But Beijing seems to have decided to pursue modernity and high-income status by resurrecting institutions, personnel systems, and approaches developed for a very different time and stage of development.

A theme that runs through this book is that when the levers of control are overcentralized in the party-state, allocation of investment and risk lacks the finesse, speed, agility, objectivity, and efficiency that China’s economy, politics, and society require. Political spillover from overcentralization could lead to increased factionalism, succession crises, or the demise of institutional constraints. A number of authors see big risks in China’s current trajectory of hard recentralization, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and “grand steerage.” The implication is that the party-state needs to relax its grip and take a more open, liberal, market-based approach to development because its economy, society, and politics are becoming ever more complicated.

China’s attempt to achieve modernity and high-income status without fundamental transformation of its 1950s political system is arguably the most unique feature of its version of the export-led growth model developed by Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Observers, both inside and outside China, now describe the Chinese experiment as a proven—if not superior—alternative to the “Washington consensus” model of development, but that judgment is premature at best.28 If the People’s Republic of China meets its centenary targets while relying more on party discipline than rule of law, substantially restricting the scope of private sector activities, and maintaining tight control of an increasingly diverse and demanding citizenry, it will be able to make a strong case for the efficacy of its alternative model. But even if it achieves modernity, democracy, and social harmony with Chinese characteristics, China might well continue to have limited soft power because there is much about the Chinese system and behavior that has little appeal for countries with liberal democracy, and discomfort with China’s brand of big power behavior seems to be growing.


1. Examples include Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, second edition (New York: Penguin, 2012); Jonathan Fenby, Will China Dominate the 21st Century, second edition (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017); Ann Lee, Will China’s Economy Collapse? (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017); and Gordon G. Chang, The Coming Collapse of China (New York: Random House, 2001).

2. See, for example, Xi Jinping, The Governance of China (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2014); and Xi Jinping, The Governance of China II (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2017).

3. See, for example, Howard W. French, Everything under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2017); and James R. Gorrie, The China Crisis: How China’s Economic Collapse Will Lead to a Global Depression (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013).

4. See, for example, David Shambaugh, China’s Future (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016); and Lee, Will China’s Economy Collapse?

5. For the first articulation of the centenary goals, see “Full Text of Hu Jintao’s Report at the 18th Party Congress,” November 27, 2012, Reaffirmations can be found in Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017,’s_report_at_19th_
CPC_National_Congress.pdf; and Li Keqiang, “Report on the Work of the Government,” delivered at the First Session of the 13th National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China on March 5, 2018,
English.pdf. For illustrative commentary on the significance of the goals, see Shannon Tiezzi, “Why 2020 Is a Make-or-Break Year for China,” The Diplomat, February 13, 2015,

6. Beijing ceased referring by name to the drive to achieve preeminence in several areas of advanced technology in late 2018, seemingly in response to complaints and demands from the Trump administration made during the trade dispute that began the previous year. The title of the program may have been dropped but not the quest for technological dominance. For more on 2025 goals, see State Council, “‘Made in China 2025’ Plan Issued,” May 19, 2015,

7. Reformers like Zhu Rongji used the excuse of getting ready for China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) to push through much needed SOE reforms. See Jean C. Oi, ed., Going Private in China: The Politics of Corporate Restructuring and System Restructuring (Washington, DC: APARC Brookings, 2011), especially Joo-Youn Jung, “Reinvented Intervention: The Chinese Central State and State-owned Enterprise Reform in the WTO Era,” 119–34. See also Barry Naughton, Growing out of the Plan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

8. See Ian Johnson, “China’s Lost Decade,” New York Review of Books, September 27, 2012,

9. Cheng Li, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2016).

10. See, for example, Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), chapter 11; and Harry Harding, A Fragile Relationship: The United States and China since 1972 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1992).

11. See, for example, Richard Baum, ed., China’s Four Modernizations: The New Technological Revolution (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980).

12. Illustrative examples of works examining trade-offs and problems include Vaclav Smil, The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1984); Mary E. Gallagher, Authoritarian Legality in China: Law, Workers, and the State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017); and Jean C. Oi, Rural China Takes Off: Institutional Foundations of Economic Reform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

13. Then premier Wen Jiabao famously characterized China’s growth model as “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable” in 2007 and returned to that point in his final report to the National People’s Congress. See Wen Jiabao, “Report on the Work of the Government,” March 5, 2013,; and Tom Holland, “Wen and Now: China’s Economy is Still ‘Unsustainable,’South China Morning Post, April 10, 2017.

14. For a detailed case study of this agility, see Jean C. Oi and Steven M. Goldstein, eds., Zouping Revisited: Adaptive Governance in a Chinese County (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

15. The World Bank classifies countries with per capita incomes of $3,956 to $12,235 as “upper middle income.” China’s per capita income in 2018 was $9,770. See “China,” World Bank Data,

16. See, for example, Linda Glawe and Helmut Wagner, “The Middle-Income Trap: Definition, Theories and Countries Concerned—A Literature Survey,” Comparative Economic Studies 58 (2016): 507–38,; and Barry Eichengreen, Donghyun Park, and Kwanho Shin, “Growth Slowdowns Redux: New Evidence on the Middle Income-Trap,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 18673, January 2013,

17. For information on graduation to high-income status, see Matt Juden, “Which Countries Have Graduated from Each Income Group and When?” Center for Global Development, March 23, 2016,

18. See, for example, David L. Epstein, Robert Bates, Jack Goldstone, Ida Kristensen, and Sharyn O’Halloran, “Democratic Transitions,” American Journal of Political Science 50, no. 3 (July 2006): 551–69; and Henry S. Rowen, “When Will the Chinese People Be Free?” Journal of Democracy 18, no. 3 (July 2007): 38–52 and works cited therein.

19. See, for example, “Xi Calls for Strengthened Ideological Work in Colleges,” Xinhua, December 9, 2016,; and “Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation,” China File, November 8, 2013,

20. See, for example, Edward S. Steinfeld, Playing Our Game: Why China’s Rise Doesn’t Threaten the West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

21. See, for example, Migtali Das and Papa N’Diaye, “Chronicle of a Decline Foretold: Has China Reached the Lewis Turning Point?” International Monetary Fund, IMF Working Paper, January 2013,

22. See, for example, “China Plus One,” FTI Journal, February 2013,

23. See, for example, “Xu Zhangrun’s China: ‘Licking Carbuncles and Sucking Abscesses,’China Change, August 1, 2018,; and Chris Buckley, “As China’s Woes Mount, Xi Jinping Faces Rare Rebuke at Home,” New York Times, July 31, 2018,

24. See, for example, Tianyong Zhou, The China Dream and the China Path (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2014).

25. See, for example, Joseph Fewsmith, “The Political and Social Implications of China’s Accession to the WTO,” China Quarterly 167 (September 2001): 573–91, and sources cited therein.

26. See, for example, Xi Jinping, “Address to the First Session of the 12th National People’s Congress,” March 17, 2013, in Xi, Governance of China, vol. 1, 40–46.

27. See Andrew Walder, China under Mao: A Revolution Derailed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

28. See, for example, Seth D. Kaplan, “Development with Chinese Characteristics,” The American Interest, January 3, 2018,; and Thomas Ambrosio, “The Rise of the ‘China Model’ and ‘Beijing Consensus’: Evidence of Authoritarian Diffusion?” Contemporary Politics 18, no. 4: 381–99,