China's Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead
Bruce Gilley discusses his new book, China's Democratic Future
Published: Thursday, March 04, 2004
On March 4, Bruce Gilley, formerly a journalist based in China and Hong Kong and the author of three earlier books on Chinese politics and society, discussed his new book -- China's Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead (Columbia Univ. Press, 2004) -- at a talk sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies.
In speaking of “China’s democratic future,” Gilley has in mind not some remotely possible, hoped-for democratic future that lies far in the distance, but a democratic future that is nearly at hand and is as certain as any political development can be. Precisely when China will make the transition from a communist state to a democratic society is something Gilley finds difficult to predict, although he did say that he would be surprised if China were not a democracy by the year 2020. For Gilley, the question is thus not whether China will become democratic, but why and how it will become democratic, and what the consequences of this may be for the world.
Sweeping Away the Rubble
Gilley began by rhetorically clearing the ground. This involved, first, answering the obvious question “What is democracy?”
Democracy he defines as a system wherein top political leaders are selected via free and fair elections. If one accepts this thin definition -- and so excludes such elements as liberalism within society, tolerance, judicial impartiality, and the like, which, according to other definitions, are often central to democracy -- then somewhere around two-thirds to 70 percent of all states today could be described as electoral democracies. This “democratic majority” might be said to constitute the wave of the present. Even a non-democratic society like China is in a sense riding this wave: all evidence, Gilley argues, points to China moving in the direction of democracy.
Second, what does democracy do for a country? Here, Gilley pointed out that democracy can have mixed instrumental effects. While it can, for instance, enhance the legitimacy of the government, it can also unleash domestic violence, from individual criminal acts to civil war. In the short run, it may well lead to decreased economic growth, or to stagnation, or even to economic shrinkage, but in the long run it tends to be conducive to economic growth.
Third, what of the cultural argument, namely that China has an anti-democratic ethos? On the one hand, Gilley is ready to admit that Confucianism, which is often considered the core of public (and especially political) values in China, is “fairly anti-democratic.” But on the other hand, he argues that historically every society that became democratic was once non-democratic. This is as true of the countries of the West as it is of countries elsewhere in the world. In short, that a country is now non-democratic does not mean that it cannot become democratic.
Fourth, what of the wishes of the Chinese people? The people of China -- as evidenced by surveys of popular opinion -- and the intellectuals of China -- as evidenced by discourse on governance -- want democracy. Although throughout the post-Mao reform era so-called neo-authoritarianism and neo-conservatism -- which bemoan the loss of the ethos of egalitarianism, the loss of the spirit of selfless “service to the people,” the lack of strong, dedicated leadership, and so on -- have vied with liberalism for the allegiance of China’s intellectuals, today mainstream discourse, according to Gilley, is pro-democracy. Gilley mentioned several exponents of liberalism, such as Cao Siyuan, a strong advocate of constitutionalism, and he pointed out that even within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the military, there are influential, outspoken advocates of liberalism.
Fifth, several studies have suggested that when GDP per capita reaches (depending on the study) US$3,000 to US$10,000, authoritarian regimes tend to crumble. In 2002, GDP per capita in China reached, according to a World Bank estimate, around US$4,000 in purchasing power.
Finally, Gilley ticked off a list of factors that are conducive to a transition to democracy in China: an emergent civil society; a growing rule of law; unprecedented international interaction (through participation in the globalization of trade and political relationships); debate within the CCP on democracy; fundamental political structural changes (especially, the death of the so-called Long March generation, the old guard from the 1930s and before); the depoliticization of the military (the once politically and economically powerful People’s Liberation Army now has no seat on the Standing Committee of the Politburo).
How Will China Democratize?
The so-called third wave of democracy (a expression coined by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington), which began in 1974 with the democratization of Portugal, continued through the breakup of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of communism in East Europe beginning in the late 1980s, and continues through to today, has given us, Gilley says, ample information on how democracy can emerge and ample data on which to base predictions of democratic transitions.
The “transition sequence,” as Gilley termed it, will likely proceed through three stages.
(1) Crisis: “Crisis means a system-wide crisis of governance that differs from the normal crisis of authoritarian rule in two respects: It is broad or national, and it is blamed by society on the regime itself -- SARS was a perfect example of this last year.” This will be either an economic or political crisis, and perhaps one that at first is remote, either in the sense that it germinates far from the centers of power or in the sense that it first appears relatively unimportant. In any event, the crisis soon spreads and begins to occupy center stage.
Gilley thinks it is unlikely that China will face a slowdown in economic growth in the next decade or so. Nonetheless, an economic crisis cannot be ruled out. China is wrestling with many ugly fiscal problems, any one of which could get out of control. Gilley mentioned one such problem: the budget deficit now stands at 6 or 7 percent of GDP. The state’s main answer so far has been to print more money. If this leads to unchecked inflation, one can easily imagine the results.
As for political crises, there is virtually no end of potential candidates. Gilley specifically mentioned the Taiwan issue as one that could erupt into crisis, but he emphasized that it is impossible to predict the origin of the crisis that will catalyze the democratization of China.
(2) Mobilization: At some point society responds to the crisis by organizing itself. At this point the crisis becomes a political issue, and various reform-minded elites and social forces mobilize to act.
(3) Elite Defection and the Democratic Breakthrough: At a later point, significant members of the elite announce that, to deal with the crisis, they are going to reform the political system and establish an interim, or caretaker, government. The caretaker government then announces that elections will be held. Once elections are held, the process is complete, and society has democratized.
Elite defection is clearly at the center of Gilley’s analysis. “The formation of a breakthrough elite is the key event in a successful democratic transition -- there is a game here where no one will agree to a new form of authoritarianism so the only option is a democratic move (often intended to be limited at first) in which no one wants to the last to agree too.” Gilley mentioned a few current members of the elite who, although they are top leaders in what is now an authoritarian regime, could conceivably lead a transition to democracy: Zeng Qinghong (b. 1939; China’s vice president and a member of the all-important Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party), whom Gilley identified as “the key figure,” as well as Wen Jiabao (b. 1942; China’s premier and also a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo) and Wu Guanzheng (b. 1938; a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo), both of whom Gilley described as “potential allies since they are pragmatic ‘scientific and democratic’ policy makers.” Gilley does not see the military as an obstacle to a democratic transition since it has been depoliticized in recent years, it has been deprived of the business empire it had built up, and it has a growing sense of professionalism. In fact, Gilley mentioned several officers are remarkably outspoken in expressing their liberalism.
Consolidation of Democracy
Will democracy in China fail? Of the forty-one democracies that emerged during the “third wave of democracy,” twenty-nine have been consolidated, which is to say, they have survived. The survivors include even “frozen” countries like Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria. Nevertheless, in looking at China, Gilley’s verdict is that it has “mixed prospects” for surviving as a democracy. His book draws up a scorecard for China:
PLUS: small but significant middle class; market economy; de facto decentralized government; depoliticized military; emerging rule of law; democratic legacy (in 1913 China had its first -- and only -- national election); functioning state apparatus
MINUS: ethnic divisions (Tibet, Muslims, etc.); corruption; income inequality; fiscal weakness; no organized opposition; anti-democratic culture
UNKNOWN: What will be the “choices made by the political elites: Do they ‘believe’ in the ideal of democracy and its possibility? That is a real unknown.”
The character of a democratic China will largely depend on the decisions made by the transformed, newly democratic elite. And that character may be very different from China today. For instance, if China adopts proportional representation in its parliament, there will be a massive shift of political power away from the relatively rich and developed seaboard toward more populous central China. At the same time, it is not unlikely that in free elections the reconfigured Communist Party (probably under a new name) may win. After all, as Gilley pointed out, it has vast organizational resources.
Not entirely within the control of the elite is the issue of ethnic nationalism in Xinjiang, which has a large and restive Muslim population, and Tibet, as well as the aspirations of many Taiwanese for formal independence. Gilley argued that the “voting and violence” thesis holds that risks are greatest during the transition to democracy. He believes that a secession clause should be written into democratic China’s constitution, banning regions like Tibet and Xinjiang from withdrawing from China for, say, ten or twenty years. As for Taiwan, he warned that “Taiwan needs to be careful not to provoke a transitioning China,” but that “independence need not be messy since Taiwan is already separate (unlike Tibet and Xinjiang).”
A Democratic China: What Does It Mean for the World?
“China’s democratization will fundamentally change global politics at every level.” A democratic China will be much more powerful in terms of “soft power.” In other words, it will have a legitimate claim to world influence. It will, after all, be the world’s largest democracy, representing 1.3 million people, a good portion of the world’s population.
In Gilley’s view, a democratic China may well raise, and make legitimate, questions involving such things as the allocation of the world’s resources. Today there are strong feelings in the world’s poorer and developing countries that resources are not fairly distributed, that globalization is making rich countries still richer and the poor still (relatively speaking) poorer. A free and democratic China will in a position to make questions like this less easy for the rich, developed countries to avoid.
It thus seems that the “big” question about democracy in China is: Is the world ready for a democratic China?
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Bruce Gilley was a contributing editor of Far Eastern Economic Review and lived in China and Hong Kong for more than a decade. He is the author of Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China´s New Elite (Univ. of California Press, 1998), Model Rebels: The Rise and Fall of China´s Richest Village (Univ. of California Press, 2001), and, with Andrew J. Nathan, China´s New Rulers: The Secret Files (New York Review of Books, 2002). He is now a doctoral student in political science at Princeton University.
For more information on Bruce Gilley's new book, visit the Columbia University Press website