Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is a specter haunting Chinese communism?

Back in May, I humbly questioned the conclusions drawn by the authors of an intense statistical study* of the factors contributing to nations' transitions to democracy (humbly, because the researchers' numbers crunching is way beyond me; I was only looking at the conclusions they drew from statistical patterns they themselves identified). The authors concluded that economic growth in non-democratic states does not foster democracy, because their data showed that states experiencing strong GDP growth generally do not make the transition.

But while growth may not trigger a change in government while it's happening, perhaps change tends to come after a period of rapid growth, during a sudden onset of economic stress. People whose standard of living has risen and whose expectations have risen faster may be more inclined than their poorer forbears to hold an autocratic government accountable when it fails (or seems to fail) to deliver the goods.

China's rulers seem to live under the shadow of this possibility. Gideon Rachman, assessing the pace at which China may be moving toward world leadership, notes:
The government’s neurotic obsession with achieving its totemic figure of 8 per cent growth a year hints at the country’s continuing political fragility. Without a democratic mandate, the Communist party relies on rapid growth to keep the system stable. Somehow the country needs to make the transition to a system in which the government can draw upon alternative sources of legitimacy. Twenty years after the Tiananmen massacre, the Communist party shows no outward sign of contemplating a transition to a more democratic system. Meanwhile, the Chinese media speculate openly that social unrest could rise to dangerous levels, if economic growth slackens.
Over time, China may yet prove the much-maligned Francis Fukuyama right in his contention that competitive economic pressure is pushing all countries toward liberal democracy. Fukuyama hedged that hypothesis in various ways and never suggested that the "end of history" was at hand as he wrote. It seems to me that the jury is still very much out.

*Extreme Bounds of Democracy, by Martin Gassebener, Michael J. Lamia and James Raymond Vreeland

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