China: A Threat to or Threatened by Democracy?
By Edward Friedman
HOW CAN ONE know whether China will or will not democratize? In
general, as Karl Popper showed in The Poverty of Historicism,
political futures in even the middle distance are unknowable because
of the inherently uncertain and contingent dynamics of politics.
Therefore, an analyst should focus on the multiple factors that make
different futures more or less likely.
In The Black Swan, Nassim Haleb shows that in the post–Bretton Woods
age of unregulated financial globalization, an extraordinary
volatility is ever more likely. Thus, practical wisdom suggests a need
to hedge against the unknowable and gargantuan risks of sudden booms
and busts. Not even the hedge funds know how much to hedge. Unless one
can create new international institutions to regulate the new monies
created since the dollar floated in 1971 and since new instruments
(non-bank banks) were invented in the middle 1980s, the global forces
at work will produce unimaginable futures.
The almost impossible problem is how to imagine China's
democratization potential in relation to the out-of-control and
unpredictable workings of the new global economy. Are there ways to
conceive the issue that might be more fruitful than others?
Despite the conventional wisdom, China is not a market-Leninist system
in which the economic imperatives of wealth expansion are in
contradiction with the political imperatives of control-oriented,
anti-market Leninist institutions. China has already evolved
politically into a non-Stalinist authoritarianism. Somewhat similar
transitions occurred in nineteenth-century Imperial Germany and
Imperial Japan, producing regimes that were readily compatible with
sustained rapid growth. There are no hidden forces of history
guaranteed to undermine China's resilient authoritarianism. China is a
successfully risen superpower out to shape the world in a direction
consonant with the priorities and imperatives of its authoritarian
ruling groups—and, more especially, to preserve the Chinese Communist
Party's (CCP) monopoly of power without accountability.
In order to deal with a superpower—anti-democratic China—democracies
feel compelled to become less democratic. The democratic tide,
therefore, is ebbing. India constrains demonstrators. Japan fears to
speak with the Dalai Lama. The European Union pulls back from
democratic Taiwan and considers selling arms to China. Chinese
security forces are allowed to police the Olympics torch run even in
Western democracies. Chinese leaders visiting the West are protected
from seeing or hearing people protesting rights abuses by the Beijing
regime. Publishers hesitate to bring out works critical of the CCP.
As with the Japanese graphic novel (manga) China Has One Less Bone (a
reference to the symbol for bone, which in Chinese has one less
stroke), China's success is leading to a diminished appreciation and
defense of freedom. Author Oda Sora misleadingly tells readers that
Japan, too, restricts freedom just as China does. The distinction
between authoritarianism and democracy blurs. Even the Chinese come to
think that their authoritarianism is in fact just as democratic as
liberal constitutionalism. In such a Chinese-defined context, the
global struggle for democracy can lose its impetus and inspiration.
The People's Republic of China is not a fragile polity. It is an
authoritarian success story. And authoritarian China is winning.
African countries lean toward China. Westerners compete to do business
there, on Chinese terms. And yet, the human desire not to live a life
of fawning and scraping to arrogant and unaccountable ruling groups
inevitably ignites a desire for political freedom.
The forces of potential democratization are defined by the particulars
of an era and the peculiarities of a region. Barrington Moore, Jr.'s
classic study The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy offers
a model for general analysis, even though his book is about the age in
which agrarian empires came to an end and industrialization created
new groups with very different interests. China's potential for
democracy, in this type of sociohistorical logic, will be largely
shaped by the dynamics of a region (Asia)—and by the groups and
interests created by this socioeconomic moment: rapid
industrialization and urbanization combined with post-Fordist
globalization, the increasing importance of services, tourism (Macao
attracts more gamblers than Las Vegas), advanced information
technology, biotechnology, and a cohort that will live for another
generation beyond the industrial-era retirement age of sixty-five.
TO COMPREHEND the likelihood of democratization in China, therefore,
an analyst should look first at regional factors, then at the groups
and interests shaped by rapid industrialization and a looming
postindustrial future, and then relate both to the nature of the
Let's start with Asia, which is not, as many believe, a collectivist
world with an overarching culture reflecting authoritarian "Asian
values." Three of the six most populous democracies in the world are
in Asia: India, Indonesia, and Japan, societies that are, in turn,
majority Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist. Confucianism, likewise, is not
an insuperable obstacle to democratization. The most Confucian country
in the world, South Korea, has democratized (and Confucianism in China
is far more liberal than it is in Korea: think of the Chinese as New
England Unitarians and the South Koreans as Southern Baptist
Evangelicals). Similarly, Confucianism exists in Japan and Taiwan,
which are both democracies. Confucian Hong Kong would have
democratized if not for its retrocession to authoritarian China. In
sum, Chinese culture is not a permanent barrier to the victory of
democracy in China, although the CCP strives to make it so.
People in China have been struggling and sacrificing for democracy
since the 1898 reform movement for a constitutional monarchy. The 1911
anti-imperialist Chinese republican revolution that toppled the Aisin
Gioro ruling family's Manchu monarchy led to nationwide parliamentary
elections in 1912. The May 4th movement of 1919 relegitimated
democracy as China's better alternative to the chaotic warlordism that
engulfed the nation after the 1913 assassination of the prime
Although Chinese military mobilization against Japanese emperor
Hirohito's imperial military deflected the democratic cause until an
American-led coalition compelled the surrender of General Hideki Tôjô
and the withdrawal of his armies from China, the post–Second World War
competitors for national power appealed to the people in terms of
contrasting democratic agendas. Mao Zedong's Red Armies pointed to
village elections as proof that the CCP would deliver a New Democracy.
Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists drew up a new Constitution and chose a
When Mao's CCP, in power, actually imposed Stalinist political
institutions, instead of the promised democracy, hundreds of thousands
of Chinese protested Mao's betrayal of his democratic platform in the
so-called Hundred Flowers liberalization of 1956-1957. During the next
year, the Stalinist regime sent a million-plus democratic
oppositionists to slave labor camps, where many died.
Nonetheless, a new generation joined Mao's so-called Cultural
Revolution in 1966-1967, agreeing that the arbitrary rule of an
unaccountable CCP was bad for China. Rebels for democracy were
popular, but they were quickly suppressed.
After Mao died, a Democracy Wall movement exploded in 1978-1979. Its
titular leader, Wei Jinsheng, insisted that Supreme Leader Deng
Xiaoping's program of Four Modernizations needed to be supplemented by
a Fifth Modernization, democracy. Wei was then imprisoned by Deng.
Nonetheless, a nationwide democracy movement grew in 1989. It was
larger than many of the democracy movements in Stalinist polities in
East Europe that democratized from 1989 to 1991. The attraction to
democracy, the hope of joining a prosperous Western Europe, was
uniquely powerful in Eastern Europe. In East Asia, by contrast,
democratic Japan, the wartime invader of China, was not an attractive
democratic magnet for patriotic Chinese. Dictator Deng, a survivor of
the first revolutionary generation, had sufficient support within the
CCP and the military to crush the democracy movement headquartered at
Tiananmen Square in the Beijing Massacre of June 4, 1989. Despite
constant repression of democrats after that and a ceaseless
antidemocratic propaganda campaign, a Chinese Democratic Party was
formed in 1998. Its leaders were imprisoned. Nonetheless, a Rights
Defense movement, introduced in the writings of Merle Goldman and
attracting courageous and principled lawyers, journalists, and
activists to aid victims of the regime, has grown. In sum, for over a
century, Chinese people have been struggling for constitutional
liberties to end the humiliations, degradations, and inhumanities of
selfish and arbitrary power. Chinese are quite capable of implementing
a democratic project.
Why, then, cannot the democracies of the Asian region join together so
that authoritarian China becomes the odd nation out, and why cannot
China democratize in order to have legitimate "soft power" in the
Asian region? The answer is mainly that the region will not organize
and present itself as democratic. India would not welcome such a
regional policy. As with democratic South Africa's policy toward
Robert Mugabe's corrupt and disastrous government in Zimbabwe, Indian
anti-imperialist passions preclude human rights activism against an
Asian government that is seen as having struggled against colonialism.
In addition, the CCP works ceaselessly to discredit the credentials of
democratic Japan based on Japan's Second World War-era militarism.
Consequently, Japan cannot lead other Asian democracies. Democratic
Australia's huge economic gains from China's rapid economic rise
preclude Canberra from joining an effort on behalf of a democratic
The best hope for a rights-oriented politics in Asia might come from
Indonesia. Jakarta does not wish to be subordinated to an
authoritarian and hegemonic China. To preempt a spread of democracy in
Southeast Asia, Beijing supports the military dictatorship in Burma
and the authoritarian regime in Cambodia. As with its embrace of the
Uzbekistan tyrant who crushed a burgeoning democratic movement in
Central Asia and as with its opposition to a united, democratic Korea
in Northeast Asia, the CCP expends great energies in the southeast to
preclude the spread of democracy. China's military has even created
the capability for anti-democratic regional interventions. One should
expect China to be militantly and militarily opposed to the spread of
democracy in its geopolitical neighborhood.
THESE CCP antidemocratic policies are significant. Democratization
tends to occur regionally—for example, after 1974–1975 in Southern
Europe, subsequently in Latin America, in the late 1980s in East Asia
(the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan), and after November 1989 in
Eastern and Central Europe. The CCP regime, in contrast, aims to
create an Asian region where its authoritarian ruling groups are
unchallenged, in which regional institutions are inoculated against
democratization. China's successes in that direction make it hard to
imagine Asia, in any foreseeable future, becoming defined by a
democratic ethos that makes authoritarian China seem the odd nation
An exception is democratic Taiwan. Starting in the 1990s, Beijing has
portrayed Taiwan as a trouble-making polity and a chaotic society. But
the basic interests of China's economic modernizers are to move as
quickly as possible into advanced technology and Information
Technology (IT). This requires improving economic relations with
Taiwan, a world leader in IT. Good relations between Beijing and
Taipei would increase exchanges of students, tourists, families, and
entrepreneurs across the Taiwan Strait. Democratic Taiwan, over time,
could come to seem to Chinese victims of a repressive, greedy,
corrupt, and arbitrary political system to be China's better future.
If Singapore, in a post–Lee Kuan Yew era, would then democratize,
that, too, could help make democracy seem a natural regional
alternative to politically conscious Chinese. For the CCP is trying to
solve its governance problems, in part, by evolving into a
Singapore-type authoritarianism, a technocratic, professional,
minimally corrupt, minimally cruel, one-party, administrative state.
In sum, although the CCP's foreign policy works against the spread of
democracy, there are some ways in which regional forces could yet
initiate a regional democratization. The future is contingent on
One key is Indonesia. There are political forces in Jakarta that
oppose Beijing's efforts in Southeast Asia to roll back the advance of
democracy. If Indonesia were to succeed, and if nations in South Asia,
Pakistan, and Bangladesh, were also to democratize, it is possible to
imagine politically conscious Chinese seeking to ride a wave of
regional democratization, especially if Taiwan and Singapore were both
admirable democratic alternatives. Although regional factors make all
this unlikely, enough wild cards are in play that China's
democratization is not impossible.
HAVING EXAMINED regional forces, we must then ask about the political
possibilities inherent in the way economic forces create new social
groups that interact with the different interests of state
institutions. First, China's growth patterns have polarized the
division of wealth such that China may soon surpass Brazil as the most
unequal (but stable) major country in the world. All students of
democratic transitions agree that great economic inequality makes
ruling groups resistant to a democratization that they believe would
put their ill-gotten gains at risk. This consensus hypothesis, that
democratic transitions are more likely where economic polarization is
limited, is formalized in a rational-choice model in Daron Acemoglu
and James A. Robinson's Economic Origins of Dictatorship and
Too much economic inequality is a huge obstacle blocking a democratic
transition. The rising urban middle classes prefer to be defended by
the authoritarian state rather than risk their status and fortunes in
a democratic vote, where the majority is imagined as poor, rural, and
vengeful against economic winners, imagined as an undeserving and
traitorous upper stratum.
To be sure, there are democratic tendencies that result from the move
from collective farming to household agriculture and from the rise of
property rights, a new middle class, literacy, wealth, and so on—as
Seymour Martin Lipset long ago argued. But an adaptable and resilient
CCP regime that continues to deliver rapid economic growth is not
going to be abandoned by rising classes worried about vengeance by the
losers in a polarized society.
Still, China is combining rapid industrialization with a climb into
postmodern service and high-technology-based growth in which
industrial workers can seem a dying breed, an albatross to further
growth. Core areas of industrialization are beginning to hollow out.
It is possible to imagine the losers from China's continuing rapid
growth—for example, sixty million laid-off former State Owned
Enterprise (SOE) workers—turning against the regime. Should a global
financial shock cause China to lose its export markets, instability
might threaten the regime. As Haleb's Black Swan suggests, a full
exploration of democratic possibilities should look into all the
wild-card factors. The regime's economic reformers, however, could be
portrayed as having sold the nation's better future to Western
imperialism if Chinese lost their jobs because of an economic virus
spreading from New York and London to Shanghai. And then, opponents of
the government would not back a move to democracy.
The West would be seen as a fount of evil, and then both the people
and the ruling groups might choose a transition to a more chauvinistic
and militarist order that would renounce China's global openness as a
betrayal of the nation's essence. History suggests that left
nationalists within the regime, who largely control the security and
propaganda apparatuses, would be militantly against any opening to
Such a neofascist ruling coalition might turn to military adventures
or close China's doors in order to appeal to nativists—in ways,
however, that would lose China the sources of continuing high growth.
That is, neofascist hardliners might implement policies that would
alienate many people in China and in Asia, and thereby create a
counterforce that might find democracy attractive. But such imaginings
rest too much on long-term speculations about concatenating factors
leading to distant futures. Such meanderings of the mind should not be
confused with confident predictions about a democratic outcome.
Still, it is clear that much depends on how the post-Mao
right-authoritarian populist system relates to social contradictions.
The CCP is moving toward presidential succession rules similar to what
Mexico institutionalized in its earlier era of a one-party dominant
presidential populism. Mexico had a one-term president for six years
who chose his successor; China has a president who serves two
five-year terms and chooses his successor at the close of the first.
Chinese analysts fear that as economic stagnation, corruption, and
debt delegitimated Mexico's presidential populism, so the same could
happen with China. The danger is dubbed Latin Americanization.
Anxious analysts worry about the entrenchment of greedy local
interests that resist the many adaptations required for the continuing
rapid growth that wins legitimacy and stability for the regime. Ever
less charismatic and weaker presidents in China will lack the clout to
defeat the vested interests who will act much as landed elites acted
in the days of the ancien régime to block the changes required for
economic growth. Resultant stagnation would create a regime crisis, as
occurred in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, leading there to a
wave of military coups, but also, in the 1980s, to a democratic
opening in Mexico—because, among other things, Mexico uniquely abutted
the United States and wished to benefit from greater access to the
U.S. market. China has no similarly large and attractive democratic
neighbor, unless globalization so reduces distance that the two sides
of the Pacific seem no further apart than the English Channel did in
the eighteenth century. This is a real possibility in our age of
transportation and communication revolutions.
The internal Chinese analysis of a future crisis brought on by Latin
Americanization should be treated seriously. But East Asian economic
growth seems to me to be of a different order than Latin America's.
Region is decisive. In addition, household agriculture and physical
mobility in China make it likely that Kuznets curve factors, in which
the economic gap narrows after an initial widening as a country
develops, will operate in China in the future. That is, the forces of
polarization will be reversed. Chinese household agriculture is very
different from the world of the landed elites that emerged out of
slave-plantation Latin America. Perhaps there will turn out to be
truth to the analogy of a feudal-like CCP-type system rooted in
Russian czarist feudal institutions with the repressed labor relations
of plantation slavery and its aftermath. My own hunch, however, is
that anxiety about Latin Americanization in China is an indicator that
the regime remains preemptive, flexible, and responsive to threats and
will, therefore, head off dangers to the regime, nipping them in the
bud. It is a resilient regime, not a fragile one.
ALTHOUGH WE may be seeing through a glass darkly to try to locate
forces of regime instability or democratization in China, what is
clear is how to analyze the forces at work that will decide whether it
is more or less likely that China will democratize. An analyst should
try to understand how the forces of region, of groups and interests
fostered by the economic moment globally and at home, and of the
state, comprehended in terms of the strength and weakness of its
diverse and conflicting elements, interact. My own reading of this
interaction is that democracy is not impossible, but that a far more
likely outcome is either continuity, that is, evolutionary change
toward a dominant-party populist presidentialism imagining itself as
becoming more like authoritarian Singapore, or a transition in a more
chauvinistic and militaristic direction. China is not likely to
democratize in any immediate future, but it is not inconceivable.
China is a superpower probing, pushing, and pulling the world in its
authoritarian direction. Japan is out of touch in imagining a superior
Japan leading China into an East Asian Community, with Japan showing
China the way in everything from environmentalism to shared high
standards of living. For Confucian China, China is the core, apex, and
leader of an Asian community. The CCP intends for authoritarian China
to establish itself as a global pole.
China will similarly experience it as a threatening American arrogance
for the U.S. government to assume that an incredibly successful China,
imagining itself as a moral global pole leading humanity in a better
direction, needs to be saved by American missionaries of democracy.
The democracies might be able to promote an end to systemic abuses of
human rights in China, but Americans will not be heard in Chinese
ruling circles unless they abandon a democratization agenda in which
change for the better in China presupposes ending the leadership role
of the CCP. Appeasement is the price of long-term good relations. The
alternatives seem too costly.
There is no other long-lasting basis for trustful cooperation with the
government in Beijing than to accept the regime's legitimacy. CCP
ruling groups imagine foreign democracy-promotion as a threat to
China's—and the world's—better future, identified, of course, as at
one with the interests of CCP ruling groups. Can the world afford not
to treat China as the superpower it is? The CCP imagines a chaotic and
war-prone world disorder of American-led democracy-promotion being
replaced by a beneficent Chinese world order of authoritarian growth
with stability. There may be far less of a challenge to China from
democracy than there is a challenge to democracy from China.
Democracy-promoter Larry Diamond concludes in his recent book The
Spirit of Democracy that democracy is in trouble across the world
because of the rise of China, an authoritarian superpower that has the
economic clout to back and bail out authoritarian regimes around the
globe. "Singapore . . . could foreshadow a resilient form of
capitalist-authoritarianism by China, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia,"
which delivers "booming development, political stability, low levels
of corruption, affordable housing, and a secure pension system."
Joined by ever richer and more influential petro powers leveraging the
enormous wealth of Sovereign Investment Funds, "Asia will determine
the fate of democracy," at least in the foreseeable future.
Authoritarian China, joined by its authoritarian friends, is well on
the way to defeating the global forces of democracy.
Edward Friedman is a professor in the Department of Political Science
at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he specializes in