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.”
Rittenberg, who joined the Chinese Communist Party, was at first impressed by Mao but later experienced firsthand the excesses of absolute power, which he said transformed Mao’s personality.
While working as an English teacher and translator in China, Rittenberg first met Mao at a ball in the communist stronghold of Yan’an. At Mao’s request, he spent a day with him just talking about life in America.
“He was very, very anxious to hear what you had to say,” Rittenberg said. “That impressed me. It was one of the qualities he lost after coming to power.”
According to Rittenberg, becoming China’s ruler resulted in a “very clear” change in Mao’s personality. Rittenberg endured the shift, painfully, when he was accused of being part of a foreign spy ring. He spent 16 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.
It is precisely a repetition of that history that some still fear.
“My generation has lived through Mao,” said Li Datong, a former editor for the state-run China Youth Daily. “That era is over. How can we possibly go back to that?”
Even if today’s China remains far removed from the chaos of Mao’s time, it is likewise distant from the massive student-led protests of 1989, when the country had its closest brush with a shift to greater democracy. The demonstrations, centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, gave voice to pent-up frustrations about corruption and a stifling political system. Deng ordered a violent crackdown that killed hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people.
But even after the crackdown, the party eased controls on travel and the economy began to pick up speed. Reformists remained optimistic that political liberalization might follow.
Hopes rose ahead of Beijing’s triumphant 2008 Summer Olympics, cast by the party as a coming-out for a confident, modern China.
“One of the things people hoped for in the run-up to the Olympics was that the exposure to the outside would help to convince more Chinese people and lawmakers that the way things are done outside China isn’t necessarily scary or dangerous,” said Jeremiah Jenne, a writer and Chinese history teacher in Beijing.
Instead, the global financial crisis that year prompted the leadership to “rethink the extent to which China should be open to the world,” Jenne said.
Foreign advocates of democracy had hoped the internet, cellphones and other emerging technologies would erode party control. Instead, Chinese leaders invested heavily in developing web filters and using the internet and video surveillance networks to strengthen their ability to keep tabs on the public.
Since assuming the party leadership in 2012, Xi has overseen a further diminishment of civil society, jailing or otherwise silencing writers, activists and human rights lawyers. Online discussion of the elimination of term limits has been heavily censored.
Perry Link, a Chinese literature scholar who has long been banned from China for his research on the Tiananmen protests, sees Xi’s campaign against critics as a sign of insecurity rather than strength.
“Mao was confident in himself. I think Xi on the inside feels not as confident, and that’s why he has to push his change and knock down his rivals, shut up all the lawyers and the journalists,” Link said.
Despite that, Link remains among the optimists.
“Even if it takes a hundred years and it is the last country in the world to do so, China will turn democratic,” he said.
Beijing, however, has long argued that Western-style democracy is not appropriate for China. It cites political and bureaucratic logjams in Washington and elsewhere as evidence of the superiority of its Marxist-Leninist rule.
“Some key parts of the Western value system are collapsing,” said an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper. “Democracy, which has been explored and practiced by Western societies for hundreds of years, is ulcerating.”
Many Western analysts have likewise ceased envisioning a democratic China.
“We see now that history is not ineluctably moving toward democracy,” said Schell, the American scholar. “History is just moving where it moves.”