China Isn’t Going Democratic Any Time Soon and the West Would Be Sorry If It Did

The Chinese Communist Part has delivered reform, rapid growth and relative stability for decades and is more liberal than the average Chinese

In what appears to be a major triumph for participatory democracy in Hong Kong, a proposed extradition law has 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.

Tyler Cowen is a Cato Institute libertarian who teaches pro-market economics at George Mason U.

Source: Bloomberg

  1. Draco says

    China is a rogue state that
    suppresses freedom of speech, Christians, sends people escaping from N
    Korea back to be killed, does forced c-sections on pregnant women and
    does organ harvesting.

    Also, China’s only has a good
    economy because the US and other western governments are selling out
    their own countries through restrictive business regulations in favor of
    third world nations like China.

    1. David Bedford says

      I think you mean the US is a rogue state, they just back flipped on the Iranian nuclear deal pushing Iran to be more likely to process nuclear weapons than when they were in the deal, democracies all around the world are showing record levels of inequality whereas China has the biggest middle-class so they can’t be treating their citizens too badly.

      1. Draco says

        Because we are talking about China here, Grasshopper! ……….The US is also a rogue state…but then so is, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Britain, Canada, AUstralia, France , Germany and many others.

        1. David Bedford says

          I don’t think you can call China a Third World country when they have the world’s biggest middle-class but okay.

      2. Draco says

        Yes the US has gone rogue too. …that doesn’t mean China is better.

      3. Draco says

        Hey cokckker boy. Go learn about China’s gulags and cutting open of pregnant woman to harvest organs and then get back to me. Just because USA is a rogue state doesn’t mean that China is not! ..You wallop!

  2. Vish says

    So-called democracy itself is Orwellian NewSpeak for Capitalist plutocracy, particularly for the so-called Leader of the Democratic World, the USA.

    America essentially has a one dollar-one vote system.

    The more money that you have, the more political voice and influence that you can buy in this “democracy.”

    Corporate democracy–the best democracy that money can buy.

  3. Jonathan says

    I do not consider myself a Communist, but from the standpoint of political-structural stability, communism (when done well) provides a framework and formula for long-lasting success. Factionalism is inherent to democracies and party politics. Democracies contain the seeds of their own destruction, eroding the very foundations of national solidarity and unity. Modern democracies (particularly western ones) are the product of extreme individualism, which is driven almost solely by self interest and greed.

    1. Marko Marjanović says

      To my mind less government is better but I don’t see that circling a name on a paper every four years makes you more free or means the demos rules.

      1. Jonathan says

        Agreed. I have never voted in a US presidential election. I voted during a big congressional election year at the age of 18. I have never participated in American politics since.

        1. Jonathan says

          I am by no means a libertarian, though. I believe in a strong state and state control over important national resources and industries.

    2. CHUCKMAN says

      Early America was not in the least democratic. It’s been estimated that about 1% of Virginians could vote.

      It wasn’t just the matter of slaves and women having no votes. There were powerful restrictions on age and wealth for men. You had to have a certain net worth in order to vote.

      Imagine what you’d think of that in today’s context? The wealth limit would have to be immensely increased to account for the best part of two and a half centuries of inflation. So, you would feel as though only the most privileged could vote.

      But even voting decided relatively few matters. Most of the Founders were dead-set against the notion of democracy. They were upper-class types, wealthy planters and traders and lawyers, and all were affected by the fear that ordinary people might vote to siphon off wealth.

      Until 1913, the Senate was appointed by the President, not elected, and it is, and was, the most powerful legislative body, by far, since it has to approve all important appointments – cabinet members, ambassadors, heads of important agencies – and all international treaties.

      It also gains power from the fact that even in the days of its election, the pattern of seats up for election is designed so that the Senate can never change by more than one-third of its members in any one election.

      Elections are staggered so that only over a period of six years do all seats face an election. So, burning issues of the day – crises and wars, for example – can little affect the Senate.

      The fact is, too, that the Senate’s membership is remarkably stable, almost resembling a non-elected body. Incumbents virtually always win. And some seats even pass from father to son.

      Because the Senate is so very powerful, the really big money from big-money people finds its way into the campaigns, making the elections very costly and largely secure from upstarts. Of course, that fact also obligates heavily every member of this powerful body.

      Another point still, for the Senate to invoke cloture on a matter or to halt a filibuster from a someone speaking on the floor, requires not a simple majority, but a sixty-percent vote.

      All in all, the Senate remains a highly undemocratic institution, but a very powerful one.

      Also, in America’s early days, the Electoral College, which was far more restrictive institution originally, meant that even the small number of citizens who could vote could not vote directly for the President. The College members – again elites – were free to ignore the “popular” vote.

      Money today plays a decisive role in all American national elections, the Supreme Court, whose members all were establishment appointments, even having ruled that “money is free speech.”

      For a close look at the role of money today, see:

      The percentage of Virginians who could vote early-on happens to be almost exactly the same percentage of China’s population who are allowed to be members of the Communist Party, the people whose votes count. Membership is a great privilege in China.

      So, China’s approach to democracy isn’t all that strange if you have a little history. Of course, the vote has expanded over time in America, but remarkably slowly.

      There was a little progress in Andrew Jackson’s day. But women, always slightly more than half of any human population for various biological reasons, didn’t get the vote until 1920, after decades and decades of protest. Blacks, about 13% of America’s population, really did not get the vote until the 1960s. Note that 1789 was the date of the Constitution’s first coming into force.

      So, I see all criticism of China along these lines as very inappropriate. The Chinese have only been free from Maoism for a few decades, and they are making progress along a number of fronts. What they have today is certainly not communism, but a hybrid system owing a great deal to Deng Xiaoping.

      As the history of the United States shows, and it’s much the same with variations for the major countries of Western Europe, countries do not leap into democracy, not at all. Early economic development in almost any country is invariably guided by a political system controlled by elites.

      And, indeed, to this day, the United is far from being democracy. It is an elaborate structure with many democratic appearances and touches, but in fact, money still rules.

      1. Jonathan says

        I don’t fundamentally disagree with your analysis. I’ve always said that America was run by a moneyed oligarchy. But then again, it was Aristotle who said democracy entails oligarchy. I have never been one to support a democratic form of government except on the basis of a limited, local/regional scale and at the level of “direct democracy”.

        1. Jonathan says

          And you’re right. China is more of a hybrid entity than a true Communist government. I should have been careful to clarify that.

          And I suppose it might be more accurate to say that the extreme individualism we are witnessing in modern western cultures is more to do with a later gravitation towards secularism, consumerism, and post-modern, relativistic social and moral values which reduces the national good to the whims of the individual person and his preferences.

          However, I would still say the western Enlightenment and Renaissance contained the philosophical seeds of the West’s descent into oblivion.

      2. Larry Fisher says

        Good points, Chuckman. It is my understanding that “democracy” found it’s beginnings in ancient Greece and that the requirements for being able to vote were: Male, Landowner, Educated. This would fit with early Virginia’s system of democracy. Socrates once said that women should not be given equal rights (including voting) as when they got those rights they would soon take over everything and then they would cause the collapse of society. This 100-year push for women’s equal rights, voting, etc., is a perfect example of what the Greeks feared in a democratic system. Today, the cultural Marxist feminists are actively destroying marriage, family and attacking men from all angles. Women are naturally socialist/communist so that looks like where we’re heading in the West. That and population decline as birth control, abortion on demand, gynocentric marriage laws and courts make family formation and healthy families a thing of the past. The reaction is the formation of anti-feminist ‘movements’ like MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way). Civilization/population collapse is just around the corner.

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