Kent in Hawaii passed me this excellent talk by Ross Terrill, whose 2004 volume The New Chinese Empire is a very insightful work on China and its relations with the outside world. Terrill’s talk back in February observed of China’s future:

How and why would the political system change? There has to be a trigger in the form of a crisis in at least two of three areas: society at large, the communist party leadership and international relations. The current regime has lasted as long as it has because it hasn’t had such a crisis in decades.

Chinese society may experience a crisis due to the substantial and ongoing religious revival or because of the undoubted high level of farmer dissatisfaction. But even taking social upheaval as a given, there is no split at the top of the communist party at the moment, nor does a grave international challenge loom. This is not to say that there have not been horrendous splits in the party in the past: When Mao died in 1976, his widow intended to succeed him, but so did Deng Xiaoping, who was under house arrest. Meanwhile, the politburo was split pretty much down the middle. Two rival coups d’etat were planned, and eventually Deng triumphed. The Chinese public did not know of this struggle until it was over. Had this power struggle occurred in public in the context of social turbulence and an international challenge, things might well have turned out differently in the late 1970s.

However, if the military, which is not friendly to the United States, triggered some kind of dislocation in Chinese–U.S. relations, then there would be an interaction between all three of the spheres I mentioned. The Chinese economy (and therefore the society) would be affected, and some members of the Chinese leadership would oppose this rupture with Washington. This would lead to an interaction between an international crisis, social turbulence and a major disagreement at the top of the Chinese government. The confluence of all three, or even two, would almost certainly cause political change.

I don’t think the communist party’s monopoly on power will last beyond 20 years. But neither do I think China will break up into pieces. The communist party may itself break up, which would lead to political competition between the different pieces. I think there will be a somewhat freer political order over this time frame, but not democracy.

Terrill points out that in China, where provincial populations can be numbered in the tens of millions, a system of political parties is likely to produce a large number of parties. Consider Taiwan, which has four viable parties at the moment. Now multiply that by provinces in China that are 2-3 times the size of Taiwan, all over China. What kind of multiparty democracy can emerge?