Some specialists on China say since the Beijing government's crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement the Chinese people have shown a deep ambivalence about liberal democracy and U.S. efforts to promote democratization. They say the emerging middle class that could be clamoring for political change is actually echoing the Chinese government's position that the focus must be on economic growth and avoiding what it says would be democracy's destabilizing effects. But other experts say there is evidence of change in China.
During a forum at the American Enterprise Institute, specialists on Asia debated whether democracy has a future in China and if U.S. efforts to promote it there can be successful.
Ying Ma, a research fellow at the institute, argues that several issues trigger anti-Americanism in China, including a perception that the U.S. is trying to contain China, U.S. support for human rights and arms sales to Taiwan.
"Fundamental to the Chinese world view and identity is the belief that Taiwan should be returned to the mainland," he said. "What Washington views as important, strategic and moral efforts to defend democratic Taiwan from provocative military posturing by the Chinese regime has been interpreted by many Chinese citizens as an effort to deny them the eventual unity of the motherland."
The United States has promised to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack by mainland China.
Perry Link, a professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, says he sees hope for democracy in China.
Link says, however, transformation within the current government structure is not likely.
"I don't believe that what we used to call, or some people did 10 years ago, reform within the system is the answer," said Mr. Link. "I think the system in China is by now - I think the Chinese people on the whole know this - is rickety, old, 19th century contraption that is outdated, and is not serving the interests of the nation in the 21st century. To use a radioactive phrase, regime change is the ultimate answer. How that is going to happen, I am not sure."
Other China specialists say the key to change is with the professional class of lawyers, journalists and other activists who are carefully working within the system to promote democratic values.
Louisa Coan Greve is a senior program officer for Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy.
"My point is that all these professionals are key actors in a very broad based movement who seek to change the political culture by providing pluralistic views on public policy questions and cultural questions," she said.
Jennifer Chou, director of the Mandarin Service of Radio Free Asia, has written extensively on political and human rights in China.
She says peasants are engaging in increasingly large and frequent mass rallies throughout the countryside, protesting official corruption and government confiscation of their land.
While Chou says there are significant differences between the peasant protests and those that led to the violent government crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, she says they can have an impact on the Chinese Communist Party.
"The peasant protests today have, in a way, helped shape government policy or at least have pushed the country's leaders to endeavor to create the impression that they really care," she noted. "I think the peasant protesters, even though they are not as glamorous as the Tiananmen protesters, they may actually be more effective at driving change."
Chou says that throughout Chinese history dynasties were often brought down by peasant revolts.
She says the widening gap between the rich and poor in China is forcing the current government to prioritize efforts to ease rural poverty.