Finishing up my empirical observations from previous years of study in and about the People’s Republic of China, I have noticed over the years that most of my Western colleagues in academia, when discussing China, tend to obsess over democratization. It is understandable, considering that it is the most highly revered ideational value of the West over the course of the last two centuries. With regards to China, it is divided between three schools or worldviews--the liberals, realists, and idealists (oftentimes in international relations we refer to them as constructivists).
The liberals have a propensity to believe that if you “engage” China through trade and international diplomacy, over time the People’s Republic will liberalize, economically and politically. This is the classic democratic peace argument, applied to trade. In the Kantian sense, this means that the more a state liberalizes economically (through increased trade and economic interdependence with the outside world), inevitably, those states will liberalize politically, become democratic, and more peaceful towards one another. Like Marxism, democratic peace is a Utopian theory of politics, but it does have historical precedence, at least in the West (as most of the countries in Europe and North America developed this way [and not surprisingly, most of the believers in the democratic peace and trade theory are from the West]).
The realists are predisposed to a zero sum approach, in which a rising state’s growth must necessarily come at the expense of the more dominant states in the system, particularly if it is being accomplished through increased trade (this is because power for realists is based on a distribution, so if one state gains, another loses its power position on the distribution scale). Eventually, the rising states will ascend from the status of economic powers and become legitimate peer competitors with the dominant powers in the international system (i.e., the US). As such, this school of thought is very suspicious of any trade relations with China, does not necessarily believe that trade with the PRC will lead to political liberalization of the regime, and is of the mindset that trading with a potential future peer competitor will have the consequence of arming an enemy. Needless to say, the realists do not hold out much hope for the use of international institutions to increase cooperation and improve diplomatic relations between potential hegemonic powers (such as the acrimonious relationship between US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War).
The idealist school of thought is not far removed from the liberal, especially their belief in the possibility of a future with better relations between states, the use of international institutions to accomplish those ties, and the view that states can obtain a Pareto optimum of both gaining at the same time (without worry of a security dilemma when another state rises or economically threatens to overtake the dominant state in the international system). However, the idealists believe that democratization needs to come about through agency. It is not enough to merely help the population of a given state to become wealthy. Democracy means politics, and political change requires a demand for a change in the system from some actor or group of actors, either within the society in question or even possibly in the international system (such as the use of NGOs or other external actors to lobby governments to respect human rights, freedom of speech, or to campaign on the behalf of an individual imprisoned for his/her political beliefs). This is a fluid school of thought, as some of these folk believe countries like the US, as well as institutions like the UN, should be the external agents demanding change, respect for human rights, and a political opening. Some idealists take a more grassroots approach and believe the affected population of such a state should be the internal actors bringing about change, using civil society organizations or mobilization as a means to induce an authoritarian state to liberalize. Like with the liberals, the idealists have a Utopian streak in them, although there are cases in which their beliefs have been put into action and have worked (such as the divestment movement against apartheid South Africa, the UN sanctions against the Taliban, the influence of the US on South Korea and the Philippines to democratize in the 1980s, etc.).
Limitations of Worldviews
The problem with all of these schools of thought is that China is a very different case from the ones they cite to rationalize their position. China is not a Western country and politically has developed very differently from Europe and North America. In spite of its increased wealth, China is not the Soviet Union (militarily or even in terms of power projection capabilities). Lastly, China is not a country with a past history of democracy.
This sounds like a cultural argument, to be sure, and it is in a way, but I am not of the Samuel Huntington persuasion. Whereas Huntington’s conceptualization of culture is staid, inalterable, and seemingly separate from the remaining civilizations of this world, I am of the view that what constitutes a culture is really a product of changing attitudes, norms, and structures, which change with time and conditions. Furthermore, these conditions can be influenced by that society’s degree of contact with the outside world. Thus, the culture of the US today is much different from the one of fifty years ago, before Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade. Likewise, the China of today is radically different from the one of the Maoist period.
Tendencies of Reform in China
What this means for China is that its change, its political evolution, has historically been cyclical and incremental. Economically, China did not become capitalist country overnight. It came in steps. Privatization of agriculture, initiation of special economic zones to create growth poles for investment, easing of foreign ownership laws, introduction of contracts enforcement, bankruptcy, and a the creation of its stock exchange. All of this occurred over a period of decades. Similarly, in China’s imperial past its feudal state implemented reforms, to its bureaucracy, its laws, customs, political arrangements, in a very fractioned way. Its first civil service exams took hundreds of years to draw up, and when changes were proposed it was not uncommon for it to take multiple dynasties before they were put into practice.
Another tendency in China is that political reform is always the last to be realized. China’s feudal system persisted well into the 20th century, a system which served China well from the ancient period into the 17th and 18th centuries, but turned the country into an economically backwards, exposed state to outside, predatory powers by the time of the industrial revolution. When China recognized the need for change and eliminated its emperor and ultimately its feudal landlords in the country, it was too late. Its territory was being parceled off by the Europeans and eventually the Japanese, and it took the Communist Revolution of 1949 to finally put the nail in the coffin of the landlords (a hundred and fifty years after the French Revolution and Napoleon destroyed what remained of the feudal system in Europe).
The one and lone exception to this, the one time when China attempted a path of radical and sudden political and normative change of its institutions, was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a mass-mobilization of the country’s youth that nearly wrecked the country, costing the lives of at least a million people, and souring what remaining goodwill Chairman Mao Zedong retained from most his fellow party leaders, PLA generals, and population after 1949. It is no accident that following the death of Mao that China returned to its past of gradual reform. The difference was that Deng’s political liberalization was only permitted to the extent that the PRC would evolve from a totalitarian party-state, in which the CPC governed every aspect of social, cultural, and economic life, into a traditional authoritarian government that oversaw a rapid economic expansion and reversal of fortunes from the PRC’s difficulties during the Maoist years.
Democratization in China
All the aforementioned notwithstanding, I am not insinuating that China will always be an authoritarian regime. What I am stating is that China’s version of democracy, if it ever comes, will be different from the US and most Western countries, and there is no guarantee it will ever happen. This is because, contrary to the democratic peace theory, states can develop without democracy, and stay authoritarian or even totalitarian regimes with conflicting interests with the international system. The Soviet Union during its industrialization drive in the 1930s is a prime example of this (and when the Soviet Union did collapse several decades later, it was after an attempt to politically and economically liberalize the regime, not tighten its control over the population). Historically, there have been many non-democratic hegemonic powers that have challenged and defeated democratic states (the Spartans during the Peloponnesian Wars, the Czechs to the Germans and Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Republic to the Poles and the Soviets after World War One, etc., etc.). Non-democracies can and do develop into world powers, and they can dominate a regional or global polity.
In addition, while liberals and idealists are correct to note that democracies do not fight each other (usually), such could be said about any grouping of states of a like form of government. With a few exceptions (the Sino-Soviet border war in the late ‘60s, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in the ‘70s), Communist countries are usually more inclined to one another and do not fight each other. Fascist countries behaved the same. Are these good arguments for any of these systems of government? In a way, yes, implicitly, it is.
And while the realists may be correct about China becoming an unpeaceful, rising economic power, a legitimate peer competitor to the US is another matter entirely. Militarily, China spends less on its military than either Germany or England. And economically, China is not the US. Its nominal per capita income never reached $1,000 until 1999 and is barely $2,000 today. By the time China’s GDP overtakes the US in or around 2050, its nominal per capita income will barely be $25,000 (in the US, it will be $80,000). And China’s economic growth is highly dependent on foreign direct investment (as opposed to the economic autarchy of Europe and US [until after World War Two]). The West could develop through mercantilism and imperialism in an isolated environment. China does not have that luxury, which is why its state capacity issue to regulate poisonous foods and products is a potential impediment of FDI and its economic growth (where international businesses use and exploit the PRC’s deregulated environment to reap maximized profits).
If China does democratize, it will be a first in its history, which does not preclude its happening, but that if it does happen it will likely be as slowed as everything else. And it is happening, in very small steps. A non-Communist Party cabinet member here, business members in the CPC there, Hong Kong’s status as a free state, etc., the PRC is opening, just not at the pace that peoples in open societies who expect everything instantaneously want it. Moreover, if and when it comes, democracy in China is likely to resemble the “controlled democracy” of its Asian neighbors (South Korea and Taiwan until recent times, LDP-led Japan, the Philippines, Suharto’s Indonesia, Singapore, etc.), before it transforms into a more traditionally-accepted, Western-style democracy (again, assuming that this takes place at all). It is highly improbable to be like India, which is not just a regional competitor with China, but a country with a different colonial past, with liberal and democratic antecedents (its anti-colonial leaders were democratic socialists, as opposed to Marxist-Leninist-Maoists), and a divergent political, religious, and socioeconomic history than the PRC.
Democratization from Above
For those who advocated actively “democratizing” China on our (that is, Western) terms, I think current day Iraq should serve as an exemplar for the pitfalls of this point of view. Had our esteemed ex-Secretary of Defense and his fellow American Enterprise Institute colleagues in the civilian section of the DOD actually bothered to look at Iraq’s history, they would have realized that the conditions in post-Saddam Iraq would be much different than post-war Western Germany and Japan (cases of democratization from the outside used by the supporters of the invasion as positive demonstration effects for forcefully democratizing Iraq [to which not an infrequent number of the folk from the same ranks advocate in a “coming war” with the PRC]). Both Germany and Japan retained democratic parties and histories before the rise of fascism and militarism. The populations of both countries were defeated at the end of a total war, in which tens of millions of people were killed, countless civilians physically eliminated, and acceptance of defeat absolute. More importantly, the competing post-war ideology in both countries (Communism) was isolated from the political and spatial areas controlled by the US. Iraq was and still remains a country of political cleavages, violent internal fissures, and with no democratic past. It should hardly surprise us that with the removal of Saddam, the Baath Socialist Party’s competing ideology (Islam), which is embedded and penetrated across Iraqi society, would supplant the defeated state and replace it with its own (which is why two-thirds of Iraq’s “democratic” MPs are from pro-Sharia law parties).
China is no different today. One of the arguments used against Western-style democratization in China, and it is hard to refute this, is that it will lead to a breakaway of its Western provinces, particularly Tibet and Xinjiang (both provinces populated by ethnic non-Hans with a long past of rebellion against Chinese and outside control of their territories). The other example used is what happened to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, early 1990s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, whose glasnost (political opening) and perestroika (economic liberalization) reforms helped lead to the demise of the Soviet Union and the fracture of Russia. Losing parts of your territories is never a good argument for a different system of government, especially with a population like China, where the Communist government empowered and legitimized itself not so much through internationalist socialism, but nationalism and national liberation (against the Europeans, Japanese, and eventually the rest of the world). The prospective implosion of its territories (the equivalent of the PRC’s Sunni-Shia-Kurd problem) also serves as a convenient excuse for the government to continue its repressive policies in the affected provinces. If one doubts this, just walk up to the average ethnic Han in the PRC and ask them about their view of Tibetan independence.
These inhibitors and national resistance to any short-term/forced Western-style democratization of China will compel the authorities to maintain a policy of gradual liberalization, with the caveat that such liberalization can be repealed without notice (if it negatively impacts the interests of the unity of the state), and to make certain that regardless of what happens the Communist Party of China either stays in or shares a significant level of power over the central government. Tiananmen Square is a cautionary for those who may believe the authorities are hesitant to use force. They are not, in 1989 or now, and as long as China’s economy continues to grow, there will be little resistance within the ranks of the PLA or private elites to speed or halt the incrementalism of the CPC’s reforms. The democratization from above will be on China’s terms and conditions, which is something that no level of trade or investment, or threats, will change.