The Associated PressBEIJING (AP) — When American scholar Orville Schell first visited China in 1975, Mao Zedong was leading the country through the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, when Chinese were being shamed, beaten and even killed for perceived political mistakes.
Four years later, Schell returned to a nation transformed. Mao was dead, and the country was pulling itself together under reformist Deng Xiaoping. Some Chinese people even plastered posters on a wall in central Beijing, criticizing past excesses and advocating democracy.
“China had suddenly gone from being this implacable enemy that was closed to any contact to being quite open and receptive to interacting,” recalled Schell, now the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the New York-based Asia Society.
That opening, followed by Deng’s market-style economic reforms in 1979, ignited Western hopes that — despite the ruling Communist Party’s insistence that it would never share power — China was destined to become a democracy.
Those hopes are quickly dissipating with the rise of party leader Xi Jinping, who many once thought would be the next great reformer. Xi is now poised to rule indefinitely after China’s rubber-stamp legislature voted Sunday to eliminate presidential term limits.
A small but growing number of Western academics and government analysts who spent decades looking for signs that China was becoming a democracy now say those perceived markers may have been no more than a mirage.
“In the past, both sides presumed China was trying to become more democratic,” Schell said. “What Xi marks so clearly is that there is no longer the pretension. You cannot believe the pretension that China is becoming more democratic and open.”
Kurt M. Campbell, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and Ely Ratner, a former deputy national security adviser, wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs in February that events in the last decade have “dashed even modest hopes for political liberalization.”
China is now Washington’s most formidable competitor in modern history, they wrote: “Getting this challenge right will require doing away with the hopeful thinking that has long characterized the United States’ approach to China.”
Under Deng, the ruling party began to allow small-scale free enterprise and eased social controls. To ensure the party’s survival, communist leaders embarked on a bold experiment in the 1990s to create the Marxist-Leninist world’s first formal system of succession. The Chinese public still had no voice in picking their government, but leaders would share power and step down after fixed terms.
Even that has been swept aside by the rise of Xi, who is now poised to rule for as long as he wants as China’s most powerful leader since Mao. The move to scrap presidential limits revives the specter of one-man rule that Deng tried to ward off when he abolished lifetime tenure in 1982 in favor of a more collegial system.
Critics accuse the Communist Party of “making a U-turn,” returning China to the tumultuous Mao era and ignoring the lessons of history.
But Sidney Rittenberg, 96, one of the few Americans to have personally known Mao, says China will never return to that era of isolation and violent political struggle. He cited the economy’s dependence on openness to the world, Beijing’s rising global status and greater awareness among average Chinese citizens.
Today’s Communist Party is different from the way it was during both the Mao and Deng eras, Rittenberg said.
“The control of public opinion in China right now is much looser than it was in Mao’s day, but it’s much tighter than it was under Deng Xiaoping,” he said. “It’s not so easy to turn the clock back just by changing the constitution.”Speech