The celebrated political scientist Samuel Huntington declared in 1984 that “the likelihood of democratic development in Eastern Europe is virtually nil,” Bruce Gilley reminds us, observing that the mainstream consensus holds that China’s ruling Communist party is similarly well-entrenched.
Indeed, many China watchers insist that unlike Soviet rule, the regime’s political stability rests on its performance-based legitimacy. Citizens actively consent to authoritarian rule by a party which has delivered astounding economic growth and political stability, while restoring national dignity. Public opinion polls confirm popular support for the status quo, especially on the part of the co-opted middle class, which explains why widespread localized protests ”have not engendered …calls for fundamental political change“ along the lines of the Arab Spring revolts.
Far from generating demands for democratization, a recent analysis of public opinion by the East-West Center noted that “as China’s economic reform and growth have progressed, public interest in promoting liberal democracy seems to have diminished.”
But China also shows clear signs of three forms of change which have been accurate indicators of incipient democratization, writes Gilley, an associate professor at Portland State University and author of China’s Democratic Future.
First, a “pluralization of social values and interests,” he writes in the latest issue of Current History, evident in independent media outlets and outspoken commentators which reflect “an astounding transfer of national discourse into the hands of society.”
Second, “a waning belief among regime elites in their god-given right to rule,” evident in an internal party document conceding that the CCP’s political monopoly “is not congenital, nor is it something settled once and for all.”
The third indicator concerns “international incentives that threaten to bankrupt a regime—financially, morally, or diplomatically—if it does not democratize,” even if as Gilley concedes:
This is probably the weakest dimension of transformation in contemporary China, which has learned to insulate itself from pressures to democratize and still thrive in the international system. The smooth incorporation of Hong Kong into China and the slow Finlandization of Taiwan reveal a People’s Republic that can thrive globally without altering its authoritarian ways. Some in Beijing now speak of an emerging “Eastphalian system” in which authoritarianism is perfectly compatible with being a member of good standing in international society.
China’s unprecedented economic growth is the source of the regime’s legitimacy and stability, but Premier Wen Jiabao warned four years ago that the country’s economic model is “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and ultimately unsustainable,” as Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini recall:
To ensure long-term economic expansion (and political stability), Beijing must figure out a way to encourage Chinese consumers to buy more of the products that local manufacturers make. This will demand a massive transfer of wealth from the state and China’s state-owned companies to Chinese households.
But Beijing is moving in the opposite direction.
The Market-Leninist formula has delivered economic dynamism and political stability, but reform and innovation are stymied by the contradiction between the party’s monopoly of authority and the market’s thrust to privatize and disperse resources:
Indeed, a key obstacle to reform is that China remains so heavily invested in its state-managed model of capitalism. Of the 42 Chinese companies listed in the 2010 edition of the Fortune 500, 39 were state-owned enterprises, and three quarters of China’s 100 largest publicly traded companies are government controlled. Party officials with a stake in the success of state-owned enterprises have amassed considerable power within the leadership, and they ferociously resist efforts to transfer away their wealth to private enterprises and ordinary citizens.
China’s “phenomenal nine-to-ten percent growth rates” are unlikely to persist “in perpetuity,” says Teresa Wright, a political science professor at California State University. “When that growth finally falters,” Wright concludes, “so too may the current disincentives for democratic change.”
“The only reliable forecast [is] our inability to forecast,” writes Vaclav Smil author of Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years. He predicts that China will continue to grow in power and influence, albeit with certain qualifiers, as one recent reviewer noted:
China’s vulnerabilities and liabilities include an autocratic government, frequently unreliable statistics, too few girl children, too many unattached young men, rapid aging as a result of the country’s one-child policy, inadequate pension plans, growing inequality, environmental degradation, very limited agricultural land (just over 0.1 hectare per person, compared with 0.5 hectare per person in wealthy Western nations), dependence on other nations for grain and meat, water shortages, excessive sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions, environmentally disastrous hydroelectric projects, and a lack of fresh ideas to support the power of the ruling party.
Social change sometimes occurs as a result of improbable dramatic events, such as wars and revolutions, Smil asserts, but more often through “persistent, gradually unfolding trends that have no less far-reaching impacts in the long term.”
Radical change can appear “out of nowhere,” writes Gilley (citing Duke University’s Timur Kuran) “especially today when information technology accelerates cascades of opinion,” and concluding:
No matter what the future holds, thinking about democracy provides a powerful lens through which to examine contemporary China. Maybe the pessimists are right. But in making their arguments, often with much passion, they reinforce the usefulness of the democratic lens. And the undeniable fact is that among the Chinese themselves, the debate on democracy remains a central one. Next wave or not, the ideal of democracy is inextricably linked with China’s future.