13 November 2007

Can China Become Democratic?

I have participated in a three-day international workshop in Shanghai Jiaotong University focusing on the prospects for democracy in China. Let me say, first of all, that the visitor's impression regarding the current process of urban and economic growth and development in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing is even more impressive than what one can expect from reading and looking at pictures. The success of the economic course launched by Deng Xiao Ping since 1978, and especially during the last fifteen years or so, is out of question. How such a radical turn has been accepted by so many millions of people without major political resistance tells much about the disaster of the previous period and especially the destruction generated by Mao's 'cultural revolution'€™. However, the prospects for the current economic process to lead to significant political liberalization and democratization look grim.








Our Chinese colleagues basically transmit, with some twists and elaboration, the official message: China can become democratic only after a long period of economic growth which is still in an early period. Deng had said that there would be national elections after fifty years of development, so about 2037, while the most optimistic academics would bet now for about 2020. The echoes of the traditional political sociology on the 'preconditions'€™ for democracy are obvious. Actually this outlook is usually presented under the vest of political '€˜modernization'€™, which implies that economic growth produces increasing social complexity and an educated middle class which, sooner or later, require political pluralism and accommodation. In China, while the benefits of foreign investments and the expansion of mass consumption were nearly-universal in the first years of economic opening, they are now increasingly mixed with broadening inequalities, continuous migrations from the countryside to the cities and underlying distress. What Przeworski labels 'redistributive fights€' could indeed spread during the next few years. However, as recently noted by Bueno de Mesquita and George Downs, in China as in other countries we also observe the "€œominous and poorly appreciated fact that economic growth, rather than being a force for democratic change in tyrannical states, can sometimes be used to strengthen oppressive regimes"€ (CLICK). In the typical exchange under an authoritarian regime, the subjects can renounce to choose or control the rulers in return for some favourable economic policy. In China a crucial element of the rulers’ hold of power is, of course, the warning lesson implied by the Tiananmen Square slaughter in 1989 --€“an episode which has become a kind of taboo and whose sole mention makes educated Chinese of these days very embarrassed.

The authorized discourse points to the internal evolution of the Communist Party as a promising march. A few years ago the party was defined no longer as of workers and peasants, but of "€œthree represents"€, including intellectuals and entrepreneurs. Yet some people say that rather than entrepreneurs joining the party it's party members who become entrepreneurs and get rich --a "€œglorious" achievement, in Deng's doctrine. A crucial issue in all dictatorships is the leader's succession. The Chinese have established some non-written rules to rotate the party leader every ten years, that is, every two party congresses, as they did successfully with the appointment of Jiang Zenin in 1992 and the current leader Hu Jintao in 2002. However, in the party congress held a few weeks ago there was no agreement on the future leader to take office in five years from now and two candidates seems to have been placed in potential rivalry. I was amazed by several positive references during our workshop to the example of the Mexican PRI, a former revolutionary, neatly authoritarian party which, relying upon some degree of economic success, was able to proceed to consecutive orderly successions of the leaders in power during several decades. The so-called 'limited pluralism' within the Chinese party is, in any case, extremely limited. Official data shows that in the previous party congress five years ago there were 6 percent more candidates to the Central Committee than seats to be filled, while this time there were 8.3 percent more. At this rhythm, the prospects for having two candidates per seat would definitely be placed in about thirty years from now.

An alternative hypothesis for a major political change should be based not on modernizing and liberalizing pressures derived from economic success but on failure. Some insiders predicted a few years ago "€œthe coming collapse of China"€, which was expected precisely for 2007 as a consequence, among other factors, of China's new membership to the World Trade Organization and the subsequent external competition, business failures and social unrest. Most authoritarian regimes fall because they fail, not because they succeed, and then a democratic regime can be established by default even if the maturity of civil society and the diffusion of democratic values are meagre. This is what more or less happened in several Asian '€˜tigers'€™ in the 1990s, including South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia, which turned to be, to be put in typical Maoist jargon, '€˜paper tigers'. The Chinese regime is also vulnerable, especially because, as one Chinese colleague remarked, the 'party-state'€™ is becoming a 'state-party'€™. Corruption is widespread and rather than greasing the wheels of business it might have a negative impact on growth. External shocks on energy or commerce are certainly possible. But against the implications of modernization theory, as far as considerable rates of economic growth will be maintained, I am afraid that what communist rulers and academics call "€œpeople's democratic dictatorship"€ will keep flourishing in China.









COMMENTS

Ronald J. Hill said...

"Most authoritarian regimes fall because they fail, not because they succeed"

A variant on this would say that the Soviet regime, as an example, was a victim of its own success: it succeeded in generating the kind of society that could no longer be governed effectively by the methods used to promote the initial development.

Convinced by this success that the methods of rule were valid, the regime refused to adapt to cope with the complex society that it had brought into being. Its failure was a failure even to act on the logic of its own ideology, which posited that change in the economic base leads to change in the superstructure (the political system).

In refusing to countenance adaptation of the political system to cope with a complex economy and society, it was rejecting both Marxist theory and Western political sociology of the 1960s.

The Chinese, by contrast, appear to have solved that problem by relinquishing political power over the economy, which now relies on the market for direction, not on instructions from the state.

But the logic of both Marxist theory and political sociology remains - and to it should be added the experience of hundreds of thousands of Chinese who have experienced life in different societies and political systems (and even studied Western social science). The lesson of 1911 (and of imported ideas in other historical contexts) is that authoritarianism may be unable to survive indefinitely when there are competing values. 'Comrade Transistor' deprived authoritarian regimes of control over the circulation of ideas, and 'Comrade Internet' is potentially even more powerful.

Unless we believe that ideas and experiences count for nothing in politics, change is surely inevitable.

Trinity College, Dublin


Jack said...

This is a fascinating post. I'm surprised you can have a panel discussion like that in China. Then again, I've never been there.

I suspect China is more likely to see flagging economic growth than democratization in the medium term. The argument that China needs more "development" before it can become democratic is not a stupid one. The problem is one of thresholds; when is China developed enough? Who decides?

2 Comments:

Anonymous Ronald J. Hill said...

"Most authoritarian regimes fall because they fail, not because they succeed"

A variant on this would say that the Soviet regime, as an example, was a victim of its own success: it succeeded in generating the kind of society that could no longer be governed effectively by the methods used to promote the initial development.

Convinced by this success that the methods of rule were valid, the regime refused to adapt to cope with the complex society that it had brought into being. Its failure was a failure even to act on the logic of its own ideology, which posited that change in the economic base leads to change in the superstructure (the political system).

In refusing to countenance adaptation of the political system to cope with a complex economy and society, it was rejecting both Marxist theory and Western political sociology of the 1960s.

The Chinese, by contrast, appear to have solved that problem by relinquishing political power over the economy, which now relies on the market for direction, not on instructions from the state.

But the logic of both Marxist theory and political sociology remains - and to it should be added the experience of hundreds of thousands of Chinese who have experienced life in different societies and political systems (and even studied Western social science). The lesson of 1911 (and of imported ideas in other historical contexts) is that authoritarianism may be unable to survive indefinitely when there are competing values. 'Comrade Transistor' deprived authoritarian regimes of control over the circulation of ideas, and 'Comrade Internet' is potentially even more powerful.

Unless we believe that ideas and experiences count for nothing in politics, change is surely inevitable.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

This is a fascinating post. I'm surprised you can have a panel discussion like that in China. Then again, I've never been there.

I suspect China is more likely to see flagging economic growth than democratization in the medium term. The argument that China needs more "development" before it can become democratic is not a stupid one. The problem is one of thresholds; when is China developed enough? Who decides?

2:19 PM  

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