China is no longer so inscrutable, but Terrill's latest book, The New Chinese Empire, uses the same techniques to try to illuminate modern Chinese politics.
It is an interesting approach, but proves to be only partially successful. The book harks back to the 1970s when fleeting glimpses of China gathered by visitors could be weighted down with significance, simply because no one had a level of access to provide more. China, of course, is no longer closed.
Terrill's view on China's situation at the start of the 21st century is pretty negative. The current administration, he says, is Soviet-Leninist in character and a direct descendant of the one which ran China in the 1960s. What's more, he adds, the leadership uses methods and holds attitudes which mirror those of Chinese administrations stretching back to Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a united Han empire.
There's certainly something to be said for these views. But The New Chinese Empire seems mono-dimensional because China is no longer so simple. For every Chinese official with Soviet-Leninist control freak tendencies, there are two budding entrepreneurs out there working to build a business in the territory being released by shrinking state enterprises.
Terrill lists a series of scenarios for the development of China's current situation through to whatever comes next. They range from the more to the less apocalyptic, and he tends in the end to one of the relatively apocalyptic scenarios.
" A crunch occurs; there is a watershed beyond which the Leninist system does not exist," he theorizes in one scenario. "The party-state, never having permitted an opposition party to exist, finds opposition springing out within the CCP. Yet the political crisis brings no massive turmoil for society and the economy. A reasonable chance exists that after some time China will establish a democratic federation."
Who knows? Chinese modern history includes enough instances of the unexpected to support just about any theory. But I personally find evolutionary scenarios more persuasive. There are now too many people with too much invested in the status quo to allow the boat to be rocked too vigorously, which was not true in 1989.
That is the true triumph of Deng Xiaoping.