Still Waiting for Chinese Democracy

How long can Beijing resist political liberalization?

Axl Rose. Click image to expand.
Axl Rose

Axl Rose understands, perhaps as well as the Chinese Communist Party, that creating Chinese Democracy requires patience. As Chinese Democracy hits stores in the United States, democracy is far from rocking China. But Rose may be consoled by the knowledge that in the 17 years it took the album to take shape, rock ’n’ roll has made a ripple in China—indeed, “November Rain” can be found on the playlist of countless karaoke bars. Guns N’ Roses surely owes its rising popularity with a new generation of Chinese to economic liberalization, even as its latest album’s title track bemoans the state of the political system. As Rose wails that time’s running out for the Chinese government, evidence suggests that, in fact, time is very much on Beijing’s side.

Some in the United States were undoubtedly dejected when Deng Xiaoping, who in 1978 inaugurated sweeping market reforms of the Chinese economy, ultimately failed to deliver on promises of political liberalization. Hopes for a democratic China were violently quashed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, only to be reignited when the Soviet Union disintegrated two years later, leaving China the lone major power led by a wobbly authoritarian government. Yet as Communist regimes toppled around the world in short order, China proved immune to the democratization wave washing from Moscow to Berlin. Expectations for Chinese democratization dimmed as time wore on, and 30 years after Deng opened up the Chinese economy, China’s political system remains insular. The CCP has defied predictions of its imminent collapse, and Western-style democracy has not come to China. What gives?

It’s clear that China is not lurching toward democracy. Understanding why this is so requires poking some holes in underlying Western assumptions. One of the dominant assumptions is that economic liberalization will inevitably lead to political freedoms, yet China has grown ferociously for 30 years without sweating such inevitability. Another assumption, related to the first, is that China’s 100 million strong and growing middle class will demand political reforms once its material wealth has been satisfied. But few signs point to concerted political activism among Starbucks-drinking, BMW-driving, Guns N’ Roses-listening Chinese yuppies. A more recent assumption is that the Internet will act as a powerful tool to circumvent China’s ubiquitous censorship and organize massive grass-roots movements against the status quo. Aside from Internet-organized anti-Japanese demonstrations, the Web has yet to prove its utility for fomenting serious political opposition in China.

CNN’s Jack Cafferty famously called the Chinese leadership the same bunch of “goons and thugs” during the Tibet protests in spring 2008, highlighting the static image of China in the West. True, heavy-handed suppression of perceived threats to the political regime is still in Beijing’s arsenal of knee-jerk, reactive policies and should not be condoned. But it is a mistake to view the Chinese leadership as simply a ruthless dictatorial regime. Mao Zedong would probably not recognize today’s CCP, save several of its more anachronistic elements. It has undergone thoughtful introspection about its own legitimacy and potential demise, recently prompting Vice President Xi Jinping, the front-runner to assume the presidency in 2013, to state that the CCP’s survival is not inevitable. What’s more, Premier Wen Jiabao, in an unprecedented interview with Fareed Zakaria earlier this fall, unflinchingly claimed that a democratic China will be the endgame.

But the Chinese concept of “democracy” should not be conflated with the Western idea of direct elections and using the rule of law to constrain power. The utterance of the term democracy among the Chinese elite has so far meant promoting government transparency and accountability, village-level elections, rule by consensus and consultation, expanding the public sphere, co-opting entrepreneurs and intellectuals into the party—anything but conceding ultimate power to the people.

In short, the CCP has nimbly adapted, is populated largely by elites, and is essentially ruled by a nine-member oligarchy in the Politburo, the fount of power in Chinese politics. Gone are the days of a single strong man. More voices now participate in the policymaking process, creating competing factions within the party that vie for influence.

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.

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.