When will Chinese Democracy reach Beijing?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 21 2008 1:31 PM

Still Waiting for Chinese Democracy

How long can Beijing resist political liberalization?

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The party's subtle transformation is significant because its retooling efforts have left it standing and turned previous assumptions on their heads.

First, China's decision to attract foreign investment meant that it had little choice but to create a legal environment that Western businesses could tolerate. Its entry into the World Trade Organization expedited the creation of a sound legal regime. This has led top leaders to promote the rule of law (applicable to everyone except the party itself, of course). As a result, lawyers are proliferating and rising in rank in China, and citizens have increasingly turned to legal channels to protect their rights. Second, the Chinese middle class has benefited most from the state's economic policies. It has few incentives to dismantle the status quo. Third, far from being a liberator of thought, the Internet has in many ways been manipulated by the party to reinforce and shape its message. The Chinese state's reach at every level of society has always been overestimated, and the Internet has become a useful tool to gauge public opinion for the purpose of better governance. On the one hand, the central government has increasingly involved the public in the policymaking process by inviting online comments on major policy proposals. On the other, the CCP has cultivated a crop of young, tech-savvy cadres in universities across the country—known as the "50-cent gang"—to infiltrate online forums and bulletin boards to counter criticisms of the government with pro-CCP propaganda. Incremental tweaks and improvements in governance and public participation have apparently blunted the urgency for full-fledged democracy.

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So, Western democracy will not come to China anytime soon, and, in fact, Beijing has increasingly spurned the Western model of governance. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a shell-shocked Beijing mustered enough reason to commission a systematic study of the causes for the Soviet implosion, followed by an assessment of the "color revolutions" in former Soviet states and an examination of Western democracies. Ultimately, it concluded that the U.S. style of democracy is unsuitable for China and that political reforms must not be rapid. Instead, Beijing appears determined to draw from various political systems, adapting when warranted, conforming where demanded, and rejecting when necessary.

For all the CCP's efforts at reinvention, it is still rarely confident in its "mandate from heaven." It is a party plagued by endemic corruption at all levels, unable to provide sufficient basic social services, terrified of collective protests, and prone to suppression rather than accommodation. Some China experts have argued that CCP rule in its current form is not sustainable and that the end is near. Another scenario, just as likely, is that piecemeal, gradual political reforms could mean that democracy arrives in China with a whimper instead of a bang. A third scenario is a CCP whose inchoate and improbable experiments with governance eventually settle upon a unique formula that satisfactorily addresses the monumental issues that China faces. The party then accrues enough political capital and overwhelming public confidence that it calls for a general election, certain of victory. It would demonstrate its embrace of democracy without actually abandoning single-party monopoly.

While it's impossible to predict with any accuracy the ultimate fate of the Chinese polity, 30 years of evidence seems to indicate that Beijing is willing to change only on its own terms. For instance, the impressive stimulus package Beijing unveiled recently was more an indication of the leaders' resolve to tackle domestic anxieties than a sign of answering the global call for stronger Chinese leadership. The stimulus is motivated as much by gloomy economic forecasts as by politics. Emphasis on rural development in the stimulus plan signals a recognition that the CCP cannot simply be a party of elites and must "spread the wealth" to the poor—the majority of China. Indeed, this has been the focus of the current Hu Jintao administration.

Domestic dynamics consistently trump outside pressure, so any potential for democracy will likely result from internal, rather than external, factors. Democracy promotion may have long lost its effectiveness on China, particularly since the nation is ruled by leaders who have virtually discredited Western democracy as a necessary, or even appropriate, end. Washington, the world, and aging '80s rock bands may have to deal with an evolving, but lasting, authoritarian government for quite some time.

Damien Ma is a Washington, D.C.-based China analyst at the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm.