Deng Xiaoping apparently said, when making the decision to send in the PLA to terminate the Tiananmen Square demonstration, the prescient words ‘we cannot retreat one retreat will lead to another’. The reformist leader of the post-Mao revolution understood that if the Chinese state was seen to capitulate to the demonstrators the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) monopoly on power would inevitably be undermined.
Deng’s successors have maintained the position that however much economic reform or constitutionalism is pursued full and open democracy is a line in the sand that they will never cross. But politics and political systems are not set it stone and any number of events may occur that challenge the present one-party authoritarian system and potentially bring about democratic government in the world’s most populous country.
Many people within China and without have argued that Chinese democracy is possible and that many of the conditions required for a thriving democratic society are already in place. The country after all is increasingly wealthy with what may soon be the world’s largest economy. The population is exceptionally well educated and enjoys increasing levels of economic security. Crime and public disorder are quite minimal for such a large population. And the country and its people are very much interconnected with the rest of the world and could easily import democratic institutions and values that they have been exposed to from the outside world.
Many instance the success of China’s neighbours who made the transition from authoritarian governments to democracies such as South Korea, Taiwan and recently Myanmar. Their transition to multi-party politics and the managed exit of military and government elites from the old regime could serve as a model for China. Civil and political rights could be gradually introduced and the leading members of the CCP could be offered amnesty in return for their abdication of total power. Now that may be right and nobody can predict China’s political future but there are a number reasons why China’s democratic transition will stall and why democracy on the Chinese mainland may not result in peace and good government.
With respect to the successful move of China’s neighbours towards democracy there are real differences in circumstances when it comes to China’s prospects. Firstly there is the difference in scale. South Korea and Taiwan are small and don’t the same degree of diversity when it comes to population, boundaries, geography and standards of living. Democracies tend to function better in highly homogenous countries and ones that don’t have extensive open borders with less than friendly neighbours. We have seen in Russia’s troubled experiment with democracy that the sense of threat felt by ordinary Russians towards outsiders is something Vladimir Putin can easily exploit coupled with the extreme economic disparities that emerged after the fall of communism.
The other distinction is that South Korea and Taiwan were both under extensive US tutelage and the leaders of these two countries were restrained in their authoritarian behaviour out of fear of US condemnation. Indeed many of the dictatorial regimes that the United States supported during the Cold War made the transition to democracy whereas the governments favourable to the Eastern Bloc were less successful. China is less concerned with accommodating the opinion of US and Western governments and is less susceptible to international pressure.
Moving to the hypothesis where the CCP has vacated the government and free elections are held regularly, what are some of the dangers likely to be faced in a free and democratic China? Democratic peace theory holds that international disputes will increasingly be absent of violent confrontation as democracy spreads across the globe. And many would argue that China’s present aggressive attitude towards its neighbours and even its own people (i.e. Tibet and Xinxiang) would mitigate under democratic rule. The argument being that an unelected one-party government has to take a hard line on such matters in order to deflect popular discontent with the regime.
This line of argument works well in Europe and the Americas, both North and South, but it is not clear that it will guarantee peace in East Asia. All the outstanding disputes and strained relations China has with its neighbours would not go into abeyance simply by its becoming a democracy. The leadership of China since Hu Jintao has sought to encourage a revival of nationalist feeling directed against real and perceived transgressions from outside forces notably Japan and the United States.
Regional tensions with Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan could potentially embolden a populist nationalist force in China seeking to capitalise on confrontation and emotion for electoral gain. As has happened in South Korea and Russia after democracy. In South Korea there is a worrying level of anti-Japanese sentiment that originates from the brutal period of Japanese colonisation and such attitudes are easily inflamed as they are in China and likely more so under democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly under pressure from the Burmese nationalists to assert the sovereignty of Myanmar in the face of efforts by the country’s ethnic minorities to break away from central government control.
When you consider the new political forces that would be unleashed after the end of Communist Party rule in China the prospects for a benign liberal government are more questionable. As happened after the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party the successor government of Boris Yeltsin was unmistakably weaker in appearance and fact. This emboldened separatists in Chechnya to challenge Moscow’s control with unprecedented levels of violence and terrorism. This in turn seeded the ground for the rise of Putin whom most Russians viewed as a strong leader concerned with the preservation of order and the preservation of the country itself from those seeking to dismember it.
China could very easily go down the same path as Russia with separatists in Tibet and Xinxiang and possibly elsewhere in China seeking to challenge a new and fledgling government preoccupied with the political scene in Beijing. And should regional separatists resort to violence and the unity of the country is threatened there would undoubtedly be a popular surge in nationalist politics arguing aggressively for China’s sovereignty and a hard line security approach to tackle the separatists.
A recurring aspect of democratic politics is that the public react to perceived disorder by voting for the party or candidate that vows to tackle said disorder. The new President of the Philippines who has a controversial human rights record was overwhelming elected because he has no qualms when it comes to extra-judicial action against suspected criminals in a country plagued by crime. Vladimir Putin was elected because he was seen as somebody committed to reversing the humiliating and chaotic conditions of Russia in the 1990s.
It is not hard to imagine that many Chinese voters would be supportive of a fiercely nationalistic leader or party that vowed to preserve the country from breakup, ruthlessly deal with crime, stare down foreign criticism and assert China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. After all at present most people in China would be comfortable with their present status of living especially when compared with life for the average person in China before Mao’s death. China is on the whole safe enough and prosperous enough for most people to live a comfortable life and would likely credit the one-party state with bringing this about.
There is an open question as to whether a democratic Chinese state could guarantee to preserve prosperity and security given the broad range of challenges it would face in the transition away from strong central control to a more decentralised system of government. Russian democracy was unable to deliver for its citizens and a more authoritarian course ensued with popular approval no less. The political climate in democracies is not guaranteed to create a more liberal tolerant society especially when faced with economic crisis and concerns for security. Intolerant and sinister forces are just as likely to pop up in democracies as they are in dictatorships and with fewer constraints on their activities.
The preconditions for a successful transition to democracy are just not there to the extent that such a transition would require. The people of China likely sense this as much as the CCP leadership and a democratic China remains something to imagine rather than to expect.
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