Warm Prospects for Democracy in China

The stage is set for a democratic transition in the People’s Republic.

By Yvonne Chen
Staff Writer
January 23, 2012

China's dramatic growth in the last two decades of the last century has positioned it to become the world's largest economy in the coming decade. The success of market reforms has eroded authoritarian rule and sets the stage for a democratic transition.

According to modernization theory, economic development in China will inevitably lead to democracy. History has shown that economic growth produces an educated and entrepreneurial middle class that, sooner or later, begins to demand control over its own fate. Eventually, even repressive governments are forced to give in.

There are positive signs that China is becoming a less repressive and more open society. For example, national authorities upheld the protests in Wukan village that overthrew two corrupt local leaders, and there are potentially 625,000 villages similar to it across China. "I think [the Chinese people] fear the monopoly of the Communist Party," said Gary Locke, the U.S. Ambassador to China, in a recent interview. According to Locke, with increased access to information, Chinese people are forming expectations of the government that the Communist Party cannot meet. Frequent protests on corruption, social media’s role in revealing the government’s illegal confiscation of land without appropriate compensation, and voiced concerns about jobs in the country indicate a heightened awareness about the failures of the Communist Party. The social instability and discontent may indeed serve as a sign that democracy is emerging.

Even Communist leaders are warming up to the idea of democracy. Yu Keping, the deputy director of the Central Translation Bureau and advisor to the Hu-Wen administration, defended democracy in his article, "Democracy is a Good Thing," which appeared in the Beijing Daily News in 2006. The essay was excerpted from the foreword to a book of the same name, and it has since been discussed widely inside and outside of China.

At the 2011 World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, as well as in an interview with Fareed Zakaria in 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao explained how he broke with party ranks and openly discussed the necessity of real political reform in China during a closed-door discussion with WEF Chairman Klaus Schwab and a group of entrepreneurs. His persistence in addressing this issue suggests that he intends to push for reform from within the system. For example, in his discussion of how localities are preparing to elevate elections from the village to the township level—a popular desire for over 20 years—he said, "People’s democratic rights and interests prescribed in the Constitution must be protected. The most important ones are the right to vote and to stay informed about, participate in and oversee government affairs.”

However, signs of a democratic transition do not a democracy make. It remains difficult to decipher the degree to which Chinese Communist leaders' statements about democracy are genuine attempts at reform. Moreover, the current weakening of authoritarian structures alone does not guarantee a successful transition. China's history is marked by failed experiments in democracy, such as Sun Yat Sen's Republic of China that ended in 1919 and the triumph of the Communist Party over the KMT in 1949. Other obstacles include the underdevelopment of civil society, political apathy, competing social values, and the challenge of spreading political experiences and practices from well-organized rural areas to urban areas. Time will reveal Chinese leaders’ sincerity in addressing these challenges and, ultimately, whether democracy flourishes or founders.

Image courtesy of ken8303 via Flickr.

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