Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
Political change is happening all the time in China, though the government is not leading the charge. Rather, the Chinese people are advancing political change through advocacy by nongovernmental organizations, communication via the Internet, and political protest.
The issue of environmental protection provides a window into how important "people power" has become as a driver of political change in China. Nongovernmental organizations, for example, have begun to rank major Chinese cities according to environmental criteria, forcing a new level of transparency and accountability on local officials in the process.
The Internet plays a similarly important role in enhancing transparency and accountability in the country's political system. The recent crises surrounding air pollution in Beijing, dead pigs in Shanghai waterways, and cadmium-laced rice in Guangdong all became issues of national and international concern because of the Internet. And the Chinese people continue to use social media to call for answers and action.
When all else fails, the Chinese people take to the streets, and in protest after protest, local leaders succumb to the demands of the people, often cancelling high-profile investment projects in the process. In a potentially path-breaking case in May 2013, for example, protests over the potential construction of a refinery near Yunnan Province's capital city Kunming led the city's mayor to state that the government would cancel the project if "most of our citizens say no to it."
There are limits to the ability of the Chinese people to advance political change within the current one-party system. At some point, the Chinese leaders will be forced to recognize that their institutions no longer suit the needs and interests of their citizens and initiate real political reform. Until that time, however, the Chinese people are taking matters into their own hands.