BEIJING – So far, so good.
China's leaders have reason to be pleased with themselves as they look back this month on 30 years of "reform and opening." Their country has broken all the economic development records, Beijing today wields global influence, and – most important – they are still in power.
But after riding the tiger of rising expectations so successfully for so long, the government may have met its match in the international economic crisis.
Millions, possibly tens of millions, of workers are expected to lose their jobs in the coming months. Incidents of social unrest, while still sporadic, are on the rise. Some observers wonder whether the threat to stability might not frighten the government into abandoning the reformist principles that have guided Beijing for three decades.
"This is a country united and driven by economics, not by ideology," says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. "If the economy fails, so do the reasons for reform."
The ruling Communist Party, rarely shy to trumpet its achievements, was curiously muted in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the meeting that gave birth to "reform and opening" in December 1978. The only article published by the party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, focused more closely on the policy's shortcomings – the corruption, weak social services, and widening inequality it has engendered – than on its triumphs.
The editorial called those failings "problems of progress," however, and blamed them not on "the direction of reform" but on the fact that "reform is not complete ... and the level of opening is not high."
"Nobody would argue for a return to the old system today," says Dali Yang, professor of politics at the University of Chicago. "Critics of inequality hark back to older values, but people still appreciate what has been achieved.
"More reform is needed, and I don't see why China would want to stop now, even if the government has to negotiate reforms more today, rather than simply impose them," he adds.
The coming months, which Professor Yang says he expects to be "pretty challenging for the Chinese leadership," could actually speed up reform, he suggests, as the government battles to keep the country, and itself, on an even keel.
Slumping exports will likely prompt a rethink of the export-heavy growth model that China has adopted, he predicts, and rising unemployment will force the authorities to finally start working on a social security system.
"For the last 30 years, China's leaders have pursued significant reforms only when they have been under pressure to do so," Yang says. "Now they are under pressure."
One set of pressures that the government seems as determined as ever to resist, however, are calls – renewed last week – to match China's new economic freedoms with political liberties.
The police greeted publication of "Charter 08," a petition for democracy signed by more than 300 intellectuals and others to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by arresting several of its authors.
"China has evolved into stable authoritarianism," says June Teufel Dreyer, a politics professor at the University of Miami. "There will be ups and downs, but I don't expect it either to turn into a liberal democracy or to fall apart in the near future.
"The Communists have successfully suppressed all alternative groups and convinced ordinary Chinese that even if they don't like them, they are preferable to the dismal chaos that would ensue if they were overthrown," Professor Dreyer adds.
Charter 08 signatories wondered in their open letter, posted on the Internet, whether China will "continue with 'modernization' under authoritarian rule" or "embrace universal human values." But few Chinese observers expect the government to experiment with greater political freedoms at a time of social and economic tension.
"Eventually China has to combine her own values with universal values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights ... if she wants to establish a modern and civilized country," insists Hu Xingdou, an Internet polemicist who teaches economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "It is the only path the government can take."
"In the short term," he adds, "I am uncertain and ambiguous about the future. In the long term, though, I have strong confidence in this country."