How do we interpret the recent crackdown in China? Unlike most commentators who foresee a coming dark age of Chinese authoritarianism, Edward Steinfeld argues, “It would be wrong to read the current crackdown as a sign of stasis or regression.” He offers convincing evidence such as the pluralization of actors and institutions and the coexistence of “profound change and harsh repression” in China, backed by a comparative perspective. But while I agree with his assessment, I think that his evidence, which is primarily focused on economic and social changes, is incomplete. He doesn’t delve deeply enough into the “profound change” that has also taken place in Chinese politics.

Despite tightening its authoritarian control after 1989, the Chinese government introduced a wide variety of local mini-democratization practices, including village elections, township elections, intra-party democracy, participatory budgeting, and participatory and deliberative forums that enable citizens to meet with government officials and express their voice on local affairs. In 2004 the total number of such forums at the village level was estimated at 453,000—considerably more than the government’s estimated number of protests (74,000) for that year. While these reforms do not jeopardize the Party’s domination, they are helping to define the characteristics of future Chinese democratization.

I partially agree with Steinfeld’s assessment that the crackdown is not a sign of “institutional rollback” in the sense that some political reforms are still evolving. Experiments in the public nomination and election of Party secretaries and higher officers at the town, township, and city levels were underway in more than a dozen provinces in the first half of 2011. In the coastal province of Zhejiang, participatory budgeting was introduced in Xinhe and Zeguo townships in 2005, extended to eight neighboring townships in 2009, to 79 more in 2010, and to the city level in Wenling in 2011.

Even the phrase ‘civil society’ has been banned by propaganda officials.

Nevertheless the crackdown can and should be seen as a signal of rollback in several ways. Rather than expand consultation and deliberation practices nationwide, the government has primarily relied on control and suppression to maintain political stability. In China political relaxation typically is followed by tighter control, which is then followed by a new period of relaxation, in an ongoing cycle. In the period since 2008, however, there has been no relaxation, only a period of control followed by even tighter control. The source of this problem is the impending leadership change in 2012 and the need to ensure a smooth transition of power. The continuation of this worrisome trend over a number of years suggests that the crackdown is not simply a response to the threat of a revolution like those in the Middle East.

Internal debate concerning political reforms has continued amid the repression, but to little effect. Premier Wen Jiabao has made public statements in favor of reforms, and Yu Keping, a pro-reform scholar and official, has floated the concept of co-governance, which involves both government and civil society. But these discussions gain little traction outside the confines of the Party; even the phrase “civil society” has been banned by propaganda officials, making it clear that the concerns of the security apparatus trump reformist ideas.

The tightening of control also reflects the social unrest attending China’s rising power. There have been roughly 80,000 protests per year since 2005. The government has responded according to its traditional methods: asserting the power of the administration and deploying the security apparatus. A powerful political institution, the Wei Wen Ban, or Office of the Maintenance of Social Stability, has led the charge. Each level of government appoints a secretary to head its Wei Wen Ban. Also, heads of public security organs are now appointed to Party standing committees, an organizational shift that gives greater power to the security apparatus. New control mechanisms have tightened bureaucratic procedures and made much harder formerly routine matters, such as organizing university conferences on Chinese political issues. The public-security system penetrates deeply into the intellectual community; scholars worry that their colleagues might be agents of the authorities, and, through this fear, the government attempts to control collective action. The frequency with which such methods are used confounds the Western expectation that economic development will lead to political liberalization.

Controlling society and maintaining stability is the Chinese government’s major task, and it inevitably raises the issue of state violence. Beijing is still learning how to use violence in a more selective and constructive way and how to maintain order without resorting to dramatic acts of coercion. While the leadership tries to find new governance methods through consultative and deliberative forums, participatory budgeting, and limited elections, it largely relies on the public-security system to govern through fear.

The crackdown should be the subject of serious concern. The way in which the Chinese government treats its own people provides an indication of how it will behave internationally as China’s power grows and international constraints on its exercise decrease.