China Book Reviews


Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy, Harvard University Press, 2006.

ISBN 0674021959

Minxin Pei on China's Trapped Transition

by Jason Lee

In his new book, China’s Trapped Transition, Minxin Pei views the Chinese state as being neo-authoritarian in nature, and therefore self-destructive. Rising economic prosperity ‘can provide at best, a short-time life to the prospects of such regimes because of the self-destructive political dynamics inherent in an autocracy caught up in rapid socio-economic change,’ he argues. (p.20) The state, he says, simply has no effective means to address the current problems facing China, given its inherent institutional weaknesses, characterized by pervasive corruption and the lack of mechanisms to enhance political accountability.
According to Pei, China’s legislative institutions are ineffective, and its courts far from independent. More critically, the central government, says Pei, has failed to provide the people with education, public health, a clean environment, or safe workplaces, mainly because its revenues as a share of GDP have fallen since the beginning of the reform era. The ‘regime’ consequently faces discontent among both rural residents and the urban unemployed.

In chapter four, Pei identifies the core problem as corruption, which he says is both ‘endemic’ and ‘systemic.’ Over the past few decades, the government has become larger and more decentralized, allowing it to also become more predatory. Political decentralization was introduced with the intention of stimulating economic initiative, which it successfully did, but it has also led to greater levels of corruption and the frequent bribery of local officials. Some local governments, says Pei, have become ‘mafia states’ allied with criminal gangs. (p.132) Rather than enforcing honesty, the party survives through patronage.

It is not only at the local level that corruption poses a serious problem either, notes Pei: ‘In the decentralized predatory state, corruption tends to be centralized as well, with the regime’s top leaders being the most corrupt figures and gaining a larger share of the looted wealth.’ (pp.132-133)

The present regime, says Pei, has survived for this long thanks only to the country’s rising economic prosperity, for the political elite have so far been able to cream off resources without impoverishing the nouveaux riche - its main support base. According to Pei, reform has stalled, and so the sense of progress that was key to the regime’s legitimacy throughout the 1990s is beginning to disappear - as is evidenced by the many thousands of riots and street demonstrations that are now taking place throughout China's countryside each year.

Pei’s energetically argued book, like that of John Lee’s Will China Fail? (also reviewed on this site) provides a useful corrective for those who see only construction cranes and impressive new skyscrapers when they look at China. His is a commonly held view, his arguments similar to those of Gordon Chang, Will Hutton, John Pomfret and Ross Terrill. It is nevertheless a one-sided view that Pei presents, his use of evidence selective. Pei however, articulates the China gloom thesis more articulately than most, and is well worth reading.