Democracy is not coming to China anytime soon

The current system has delivered rapid growth and relative stability for decades.

by BLOOMBERG/ pic by AFP

In what appears to be a major triumph for participatory democracy in Hong Kong, a proposed extradition law been put on hold. Yet this vigorous display of citizen activism in the territory does not mean that the Chinese government is ready to deliver on democratic aspirations on the mainland, as some Western commentators have suggested. Democracy’s potential in China, at least for the foreseeable future, is limited.

First and foremost, whether you want to admit it or not, the Chinese Communist Party has a remarkably strong brand in China. The Communists drove the imperialists out of China, built the modern Chinese nation and have delivered (roughly) 8% to 10% growth for almost 40 years. That is a tough record to beat, and it is no surprise that the Communist Party is pretty popular. In fact, if you had to name the one large institution in the entire world that has had the most success since 1980, it would be hard to come up with a better answer than the Chinese Communist Party.

One reason for the party’s popularity is the expectation that change can come from within and rebalance policy in new and better directions. Indeed, that has been true since the reforms of the 1970s. In the last several decades, China has repeatedly shifted course as necessary — changing the power of various internal coalitions, expanding private enterprise, and boosting fiscal stimulus. True, President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power may bring stultification, but that is a relatively recent development. It is not enough to cause most Chinese to turn suddenly to democracy. Most Chinese have grown up with a self-correcting system.

Along with this micro-flexibility has come a high degree of macro-stability. Under Communist rule, China has not had a violent overthrow or revolution, and remarkably little chaos, since the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Most people around the world, whichever nation they happen to be citizens of, would be reluctant to mess with a formula that has brought both rapid growth and relative stability, and China’s history means that fears of political instability are especially strong. There simply isn’t a great appetite for such a radical experiment as democratic elections.

It’s also worth thinking through exactly what changes Chinese democracy is supposed to bring. China’s urbanization has been so rapid — it has had more urban than rural residents for less than a decade — that a national election might well reflect the preferences of rural voters, which after all most Chinese were until very recently. If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? China is also growing rich during a time of extreme economic inequality, which may make many Chinese elites think twice about democratization.

Compare China’s situation to that of Taiwan, which is much smaller, does not have a comparable preponderance of rural population, and started becoming democratic in an era when inequality was not so extreme. There was enough of a sense of a common Taiwanese national interest for democracy to be trusted, and furthermore Taiwan has always been keen to distinguish itself from a non-democratic mainland.

What about social issues? One recent study has shown that Communist Party members are more likely to have progressive views on issues of gender equality, political pluralism and openness to international exchange than do the Chinese public at large. Again, if you are an elite among the Chinese citizenry, it is not a sure thing that you will do better with democracy than under the Communist Party.

The Chinese are also well aware of the history of democracy in India, another large Asian country with hundreds of millions of people living in the countryside. Indian democracy has produced a large number of parties that represent very particular interests rather than fighting for the nation as a whole. In economic terms China has outperformed India, and under most estimates per capita income in China is more than twice of that of India, mostly because of higher growth rates over the last four decades under the Communist Party.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that everything is great or even good in China. The detentions in Xinjiang are terrible, economic growth rates are slowing, and political stability may be fraying due to the Communist Party’s inability to ensure a well-functioning succession plan. It is my genuine belief that gradual moves toward democratization, starting with meaningful local elections, are likely to improve these problems.

But democratizing China as a whole? It is important for Westerners to step out of their bubbles and consider exactly why so many Chinese are simply not looking in that direction.