Friday, October 15, 2010

The clock ticks for liberalization in China

I have argued before -- or rather, deployed more knowledgeable people's observations about China to suggest -- that China is the world's main test case of the Fukuyaman proposition that sheer economic competition pushes all human societies toward democracy as well as capitalism.  It is curiously common for China watchers -- e.g.,  David Pilling and Gideon Rachman, both of the FT -- first to suggest that China's rapid development under an authoritarian regime seems to disprove the notion that prosperity breeds democracy -- and then to tack about and note China's internal pressures in that direction.

So it is with Jonathan Fenby, writing in the FT, who first tells us:

The forecasts in the west in the 1990s that economic liberalisation in emerging countries was bound to bring political liberalisation have been disproved in China, though not across the Taiwan Strait. The mainland’s middle class has been co-opted into the system rather than playing the role of the bourgeoisie in 19th-century Europe, and probably has little desire to see hundreds of millions of poorer urban and rural residents getting the vote to press their own interests.
Then brings the counterpoint:

Still, setting aside moral and ethical arguments for democracy, there is a practical issue at stake and it has been brought to the fore by no lesser a figure than Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister. In remarks at the end of August in the southern city of Shenzhen, the symbolic home of the Dengist revolution, Mr Wen said China needed to protect the democratic and legal rights of the people; mobilise citizens to manage state, economic, social and cultural affairs in accordance with the law; resolve the problems of a centralised power that lacks checks and balances; tackle corruption; and open channels for public monitoring and criticism of government.

The aim, he said, should be to build a fairer and more just society that upheld the rule of law while protecting the vulnerable and giving citizens a sense of security and confidence. “If we don’t push forward with reform, the only road ahead is perdition,” he concluded, quoting words Deng Xiaoping used against economic conservatives.

There are of course strong countercurrents, voiced not least by President Hu Jintao, who said shortly afterwards (notes Fenby) that China “must persist with the road of political development with Chinese characteristics ... [and] advance the socialist political system’s self-improvement and development." Fenby doesn't prejudge the endgame. However, in conclusion he does rather darkly forecast some pressures toward democracy:
However, those who benefit from the present system and those who see its preservation as their mission have the upper hand. That may serve their purposes for the time being. But it could be a dangerous path in blocking the evolution China needs, particularly if the regime’s claim to deliver ever-increasing material well-being is hit by events such as a big drop in external demand, rising inflation or a food crisis. The loyalty of the people, as Mr Wen intimated, may then matter a great deal.
Compare Rachman:

The [Chinese] 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.

 And Pilling:
Finally, look at China itself. It is true that, viewed from afar, China’s political system has hardly budged. But no one paying attention could doubt that with the rise of the middle class has come a revolution in access to knowledge and the stirrings of a civil society. With a little technical savvy or a dollar a week for a virtual private network (VPN), anyone in China can breach the Great Firewall and see the same information as freedom-surfers in London or New York. That is not the same thing as democracy. But perhaps Mr Clinton [forecasting democracy in China] was not so wide of the mark after all.
My own suspicion is that Fukuyama -- and those predicting liberalization specifically in China -- were not wrong, just early (and in Fukuyama's case not even nearly, as he never specifies a time frame for 'the end of history,' i.e. the universal triumph of democratic capitalism).  A China that never liberalizes politically is frightening to contemplate.

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