Thursday, January 7, 2010

Why Hasn't China Democratized?

This essay is based on a talk given at the World Affairs Council of Northern California on October 5, 2009.
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With the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989 now well behind us, it’s time to reflect on its implications. In the immediate aftermath of that crisis, more than two decades ago now, a significant number of observers confidentially predicted that the Chinese Communist leadership would not survive for long, and that China was on the verge of some kind of democratic revolution. Those predictions have gone unfulfilled. And the obvious and important question is: why not?

The answer to that question lies in the fact that none of the drivers that might have promoted democratic change has been powerful enough to have that effect. Indeed, some of them have not even pointed in that direction. Four of these drivers deserve particular attention:

1. The domestic strategy of the CCP. Given the severity of the Tiananmen Crisis, it was possible to think that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party might embark on some type of democratic reform, so as to make their political system more resilient. To be sure, there were a few indications of such a development: the endorsement of eventual democratization by some national leaders and intellectuals, continued experiments with elections above the village level, and some talk of greater democratization within the Chinese Communist Party itself. Analogies with Taiwan (competitive grass-roots elections gradually moving up to higher levels of the political system and becoming more pluralistic) and with Japan (factionalism within the ruling party as a limited form of political pluralism) suggested that such developments would be very much in keeping with the modern East Asian experience with gradual, even limited, democratization.

Despite these hopeful signs, however, the Chinese Communist Party has not chosen democratization as its strategy for increasing the stability of the political system. Direct elections remain confined to the lowest levels, with nominations usually controlled by the Party. The scope and freedom of action of non-governmental organizations remain limited. Any factionalism within the Party is carefully hidden. The press is under tight restrictions, as is the internet and the blogosphere.

Instead of movement toward pluralism, let alone democracy, the Party has placed its emphasis on constructing more consultative forms of authoritarianism (thus continuing the approach that first became apparent just before the Tiananmen Crisis in the late 1980s) and on creating a more professional, responsive, and proficient bureaucracy. Party leaders seem concerned that greater pluralism will be too risky, not only to their grip on power, but also to the continuation of domestic and foreign policies that they regard as essential but that many parts of the public find unpopular. Thus they continue to base the legitimacy of the Party and the Chinese political system more broadly on performance, not on democratic procedures.

2. The middle class. One of the most powerful drivers promoting democracy was said to be the rise of China’s urban middle class, the result now of three decades of rapid economic development. Based on the example of Western Europe in the early modern era, the assumption was that this new middle class would demand a greater voice in Chinese politics, and that this would be an irresistible force promoting at least limited democratic reforms.

But this forecast was based not only on a misreading of the situation in China, but also on an inaccurate generalization of the experience in Western Europe. The experience of Western Europe actually suggests simply that a rising middle class will want its interests respected and protected. If the state is not willing to do so voluntarily, then the middle class will see some combination of liberalization and pluralism – in other words, some degree of democratization – as the only way to acquire that voice. But if the state attends to the interests of the middle class, as well as to those of the aristocracy and the highest economic elites, then the middle class may not feel the need for democratization.

And, in fact, most of the interests of China’s middle class – rapid economic growth, expanding economic opportunity, and greater protection of most property rights (other than land and intellectual property) -- have been respected by the economic policies of the Chinese Communist Party. Intellectuals, potentially the most dangerous part of the middle class, have been rewarded with higher salaries and somewhat greater freedom of academic expression. Moreover, the middle class has also been given some degree of political voice, both through the consultative mechanisms mentioned above, and also by its representatives into the Party through the “three represents” recruitment policy associated with former president Jiang Zemin. This combination of economic benefit and political cooptation has kept middle class opposition to the Communist Party to a minimum.

Moreover, many members of the middle class seem to share the Party’s concern about the possible dangers of democratization. In an increasingly unequal society, the middle class is alarmed by the possibility of that giving more democratic voice to the lower classes would lead to demands for more redistributive and populist policies. A frequent mantra from China’s middle classes is that the low levels of education of the poor, especially in the rural areas, would make democracy unfeasible and undesirable for China. In previous centuries, it was possible to start democratization with mechanisms that limited the enfranchisement of the lower classes first through various property restrictions on the right to vote, then through poll taxes, and in some places through the creation of special classes of seats (an appointed or indirectly elected upper house or functional constituencies, as in Hong Kong). Those restrictions are far less feasible in today’s world, where it is probably easier to resist any form of democratization than to limit the beneficiaries of the process to privileged urban classes.

3. Popular pressure. In terms of numbers, the greatest threat to the Chinese communist Party would be pressures for democratization from China’s working classes, in both urban and rural areas. This is also a potential driver for democratization, given the widespread grievances over a large number of issues, ranging from environmental problems to corruption to disputes over state appropriation of property.

There has indeed been a significant increase in local protests over the last decade, but they have remained localized and they have generally focused on a redress of grievance rather than on democratic reforms. Moreover, the Party has developed a successful strategy for coping with the protests: address the problem, deal leniently with most of the participants in the protests, but crack down on the leaders. Above all, the Party has tried to portray the problems as specific local issues that do not reflect any broader structural issues.

What is most discouraging to the proponents of democratization in China is that the Party has not been significantly challenged even when issues have arisen that have not been purely local. These have included, most notably, the collapse of elementary schools during the recent Sichuan earthquake, which was regional in scope, and the melamine and other product safety scandals, which were national in scope. These problems could not easily be blamed on individual local officials, as is the case with most other local issues in China. Even so, they did not lead to protests on a scale that the authorities found difficult to deal with. Nor did the major national anniversaries of 2009 (the ninetieth anniversary of the May Fourth movement, the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, or even the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Crisis) serve as the occasion for any widespread protest.

The biggest exception to these generalizations has been the riots and protests in minority areas, especially Tibet and Xinjiang. These have been large in scale and violent in conduct. Even so, the authorities have had little difficulty in suppressing them. And, perhaps most important, they have not triggered sympathetic protests among Han Chinese. On the contrary, the Tibetan and Uighur protests have been largely condemned by the bulk of the Chinese population.

4. “Democratic contagion.” A final driver would be the positive examples of democratic transition in other countries of relevance to China. One reason for optimism about the prospects for democratization in China in the years immediately after the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989 were the transitions to democracy in other state socialist societies, most notably the European states in 1989 and then many constituents of the former Soviet Union (especially Russia itself) in 1991. This occurred at about the same time that other countries in Asia were also experiencing democratic reforms, including the Philippines (the fall of Marcos in 1986), Taiwan (the first direct presidential elections in 1986), and South Korea (first direct presidential elections the following year).

However, within a few years, the democratic tide outside China began to crest and then recede. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, and Russia’s subsequent loss of status as a global power, could be persuasively portrayed in China as a negative side-effect of democratization. The polarized political scene on Taiwan in the 1990s, the difficulties experienced by the United States in promoting democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s, and the seeming difficulty of some Western democracies in dealing with the financial crisis of 2008-09, could also be successfully used by Chinese leaders to discredit democratic institutions, especially when created in developing countries and in times of economic difficulty.

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This analysis suggests that the absence of democratization in China, rather than posing a mystery that is difficult to explain, is actually over-determined. None of the drivers that might have led to democratic reforms appears to have been particularly powerful.

This all might change, of course, if any of the drivers is activated, singly or in combination: if the international environment appears to make democratization inevitable, if issues arise that mobilize popular protest on a scale that cannot be kept localized, if the middle class becomes dissatisfied with the performance of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, or if the Party itself decides that its prospects are better if it begins, rather than postpones, democratic reforms. None of these conditions appears likely at the moment, but each of them needs to be carefully monitored for the prospect of change.

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