Kenneth Lieberthal (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995) 498 pp.
Everyone knows that China's economy has taken off like a rocket; some studies already rank its GDP as the world's largest. The real question mark hanging over China's future is the fate of its Marxist political system, and whether it will bring this rocket crashing to earth. In Governing China, Kenneth Lieberthal helps fill in of the blanks. Lieberthal is one of America's most distinguished "China-watchers," who, like the old Kremlinologists of the Cold War, have made their living discerning political changes and power struggles through the murky opaqueness of a Marxist regime.
The book is divided into three sections: an overview of China's political development this century, a study of the institutions and dynamics of policy making in recent years, and a prognosis of the challenges facing the regime. Trying to please a diverse audience, Lieberthal's brush strokes are almost too broad, but what the book lacks in unifying argument, it makes up for in original revelations of China's little-understood system of policy
Lieberthal's most striking insight is his description of the enormous gulf between ostensible and actual power in Chinese politics. Looking from the "outside" (the realm of official power intended for display), China seems governed by a vast, highly regimented bureaucracy divided into the twin hierarchies of the Communist party and civil service (the military is not discussed in depth), where everyone has a superior and knows their place. The Party's control over appointments and its power to defame critics with its dreaded personnel files usually enables it to take precedence over the civil service. Guiding this vast machine from above are the Politburo and the State Council led by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng.
But in his chapter on the "view from the inside," the most compelling section of the book, Lieberthal says this semblance of tidy order is an illusion. "Leave the organizational charts behind," he suggests, if you want to find who really rules China. In reality, power lies in an almost invisible world where all major policy decisions are made by behind-the-scenes informal committees of leading Party members, both within each policy specialization (public security, economic policy, defense, etc.) and at the very apex of the system.
Supreme in this shadowy world is what Lieberthal calls "the Top 25 or 35," a clique of the highest Party elders who wield...