The study of democratization often elicits wishful thinking, from both advocates, who can always find reasons why it is coming soon, and resisters, who make excuses why a nation is not ready for it. In recent years, China has become the foremost object of this debate. Social science theories of systemic change are inadequately developed to resolve this discussion, and the evidence from China’s quarter-century transformation away from Maoist rule is mixed. This paper therefore restates four theoretical frameworks with attention to how China’s evolution and current situation fit into them: 1) modernization theory; 2) comparative communist theory; 3) civilizational theory with Confucianism; and 4) national identity theory linked to ideas of globalization, all interpreted in the context of emerging Northeast Asian regionalism.
The evolution of postwar social science can be traced through each of these theories, as they were applied to China and shaped perceptions of it. In the 1950s China, along with the Soviet Union, appeared to be a test for modernization theory, with claims of successful five-year plans and then the Great Leap Forward that defied the logic of balanced modernization. The Cultural Revolution (1966–76) masqueraded as reform of socialism, but after 1978 China really led the way to theorizing about reform, that is, market socialism. Over the course of the 1980s and ’90s it came to epitomize the special legacy of Confucian values for development. Since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, China has provided a test for globalization theory centered on converging national identities. In each case, China offers a prime case for theories of large-scale social change.