The Chinese government has increasingly adopted the rhetoric of democracy to describe its political system, claiming in a 2005 white paper that the “building of democracy with Chinese characteristics is progressing with the times and exhibiting great vigor and vitality.” At the same time, Chinese officials claim that their country is not yet developed enough to support democratic institutions such as a free press, independent trade unions, and nationwide elections.
How do we explain the contradiction between Chinese rhetoric and the absence of political reform? What can we learn from the examples of other recently democratized countries in Asia and around the world? Are there specific economic and institutional triggers that release the forces of political liberalization? On April 18, AEI will hold a panel discussion on these and other questions related to China’s future as part of the “Whither Democratization in China” seminar series.
Gerard Alexander, AEI and University of Virginia
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Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI
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Arthur Waldron, University of Pennsylvania
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Ying Ma, AEI
The Chinese government has increasingly adopted the rhetoric of democracy to describe its political system, claiming in a 2005 white paper that the “building of democracy with Chinese characteristics is progressing with the times and exhibiting great vigor and vitality.” At the same time, Chinese officials claim that their country is not yet developed enough to support democratic institutions such as a free press, independent trade unions, and nationwide elections. How do we explain the contradiction between Chinese rhetoric and the absence of political reform? What can we learn from the examples of other recently democratized countries in Asia and around the world? Are there specific economic and institutional triggers that release the forces of political liberalization? On April 18, AEI held a panel discussion on these and other questions related to China’s future as part of the “Whither Democratization in China” seminar series.
With President Hu in Washington this week, economic and security issues are likely to be the focal points of discussion. However, China’s authoritarian political system remains at the forefront of the American mindset. In October 2005, the Chinese government released a democracy white paper reiterating that democracy is only possible when conditions are right in that country. According to the Chinese government, conditions are not right in China. The government has given no indication as to when conditions could be right, and its actions indicate little movement toward a democratic system. However, it may not be up to the regime. With widespread diversification of Chinese society and modernization, it is possible that the Chinese government will be forced to reform. Neighboring South Korea and Taiwan have democratized, and it is possible that their experiences may be replicated in China.
University of Pennsylvania
Chinese history indicates that democracy has long been a part of the Chinese mindset and a consideration as a form of governance. Politicians, intellectuals, and jurists have all at various times supported democracy for China and thought about how such democracy could be structured, but such recommendations were never implemented. The largest pro-democracy demonstrations in human history took place in the spring of 1989 in China. It is not historically accurate to say that the Chinese have no inclination for democracy.
When the Communists came to power after winning the civil war, they did not implement the electoral democracy that Mao had described in 1945, but rather “Soviet-style democracy” or authoritarian rule. While China has developed immensely in other arenas, it remains a dictatorship in the political realm.
Karl Marx argued that industrialization simplified the organization of the world and homogenized people into industrial workers. In his theory, the world becomes a large mass of these exploited workers with a few capitalists who still own the factories in which the workers labor until they come to control the means of production. Marx believed that once there was a single class, there would be a single class interest and hence no more conflict. The role of the government would be to get rid of the capitalists, and then harmony would ensue. Marx was wrong that societies move from complexity to simplicity; rather, they have proven to move from the simple to more complex with development. Modernization and the new complexities it created allowed for new conflicts to arise rather than creating a conflict free society. Chinese communism was built under the same plan, meaning as it rises it becomes more conflict-ridden, not less.
When the time came to reform, the Soviets opened politically before economically, resulting in a chaotic failure. China decided to open economically first and deferred political change. When change began, China already had social disparities, and growth has intensified these problems. In China today, there is essentially no legal system to settle disputes. There has been a substantial rise in unrest and appeals to Beijing, causing even more strain on the system. The increasing rate of violence in China largely mirrors the rate of growth.
The more China advances, the more conflict-ridden it is bound to become. The Communist system at the top obviously cannot provide all the governance for such a complex society. China needs elected assemblies and functioning courts.
It became clear under Mikhail Gorbachev that change was necessary under the Soviet Union. It is not surprising that communism failed; rather it is surprising that Russia was able to transition without any major violence. One can only hope that China will be able to do the same. It is likely that change will happen in China similarly to how it did the Soviet Union; it will come when someone in power is willing to take on reforms, starting a process that becomes irreversible. The problem is that economic reforms have led to a widespread problem of corrupt officials, creating a class of people who will resist change.
The Republic of Korea and the Republic of China both experienced periods of rapid growth in the decades before the mid-1980s. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, both nations took a decisive political turn toward democracy. While some scholars have highlighted this as the materialistic theory of Asian democracy with economic growth and development followed by the establishment of a constitutional democracy, the real picture of what occurred in these two countries is less tidy than that. Though South Korea and Taiwan are often treated as twins in their democratizations, their experiences were quite different.
South Korea and Taiwan were both parts of divided nations, experienced Japanese colonialism, and were former police states. Nevertheless, there were some significant differences between the two, the most important of which was the political order. South Korea lacked political party institutions, while Taiwan was led by a monolithic Lenin-style party. The Kuomintang (KMT) was originally a Leninist party, which has evolved to become a political player in Taiwan today. On the other hand, political parties in South Korea have historically been very short-lived.
In Taiwan, democratization occurred in a relatively orderly way, encouraged by the president and largely supported by the KMT. Preparations were made for a competitive opening of the KMT. South Korea did not have parties; rather, its cohesive institution was the military. Most of the past presidents were former generals. The South Korean transition happened quickly over a few months in 1987.
Both countries have seen the successful transition of power since their democratizations. Despite this, both countries are still works in progress.
History indicates that there is nothing definite about democracy following economic growth. Looking at Singapore, it is clear that there is not an income threshold at which countries become democracies.
One thing both South Korea and Taiwan have in common is the role of an indispensable leader in the process of democratization. In both countries, while these were internal developments, they were influenced by external events. In Taiwan’s case, the need for international support may have encouraged democratization, since democracy is a way of gaining legitimacy in the international sphere.
Finally, it is important to remember the stories of democratization in South Korea and Taiwan are still evolving.
Democratization has nowhere been simply a function of the intentions of regime leaders or would-be reformers. Both of these groups are subject to forces beyond their control. This does not mean that they have no control, rather that there are other factors that must be considered. For example, while many in Russia have the goal of a stable democracy, Russia has not been able to establish that goal. The choices societies have are shaped by political, economic, and social factors.
When analysts bother to go beyond a focus on leaders and opponents and begin to discuss constraints, often the pendulum swings too far. In addressing structural constraints, analysts make them appear far more mechanical and automatic than they actually are. The most prominent example of this is the idea that economic growth will definitely establish democracy in China. People who promote this view seem unconcerned about the process of democratization or the analysis of how this should happen; they simply believe it will happen once there is a strong middle class. But democratization is not automatic even when underlying conditions are favorable.
Modernization in fact creates multiple constituencies with varying interests, some of which may not be pro-democratic. China’s middle classes are really multifaceted, with different interests amongst different class groups within the wider middle class. In Russia, those who were positioned during the transition to take over state assets are significantly less interested in promoting transparency than many others. Growth and modernization do not push politics in a single direction.
The process of increased rights and tolerance is less prevalent in China today than it was in South Korea and Taiwan on the eves of their democratic transitions. There is some progress on liberalization and discussion about domestic problems; however, China has a much longer way to go before the underlying conditions prove ripe for democracy.
Transitions to greater participation do not always result in democracy. Comparative study indicates that there are a few mandatory factors in order have a successful transition to democracy. The first is a state and government that is strong enough to govern effectively, but is not so strong that it overpowers its civil society. Society must not be so polarized that groups are willing to turn to violence rather than being willing to lose an election.
China is not at risk of a too-weak state and could deliver core features of a democratic system. The state has the problem of being too strong in China, but hopefully the private sector and civil society can balance out the strength of the government. Whether or not the different factions of Chinese society will be willing to lose elections is the greatest unknown.
Political reform is likely to be forced on China’s regime by external factors, and the road to participation will be much messier than the modernization theory suggests. It is also unknown whether that path will result in a stable democracy. The prospects for democracy are rosier now in China than any time since 1949 because of the significant steps the Chinese people have already taken away from authoritarianism.
AEI researcher Anne Siarnacki prepared this summary.