SPEAKING FREELY Why China can grow without democracy
By Lisbeth Moeller
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
As China's socioeconomic modernization and cultural globalization deepens, spill-over effects into the political arena are increasingly anticipated.
Authoritarian-led development elsewhere in East Asia has typically lasted two to three decades, before the supposedly inevitable transition towards democracy, as per capita incomes
reach a certain level (Ohno, 2013). Is China headed in the same direction?
Commentators emphasize an increasingly assertive middle class, political decay associated with rampant corruption and systemic risks in the form of rising inequality and environmental degradation as irreversibly derailing the steely authoritarian Chinese locomotive (Pei, 2007). Yet, every rule has its exception, and China may well be able to continue growing without democratizing, for the strict Western dichotomy of authoritarianism versus democracy does not apply to East Asia.
China considers itself democratic
A 2002 East Asia Barometer survey confirmed that Chinese development and growth has been accompanied by increasing public support for the general notion of democracy and for many of the same democratic values that underpin other East Asian democracies (Shi, 2008). The Chinese, however, see no apparent contradiction between these values and the current Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, with more than 80% of respondents judging the present regime to already be democratic.
Moreover, Chinese citizens were found to trust domestic political institutions, particularly at the national level, more than their democratic neighbors (Shi, 2008). While this paradox may be partly explained by successful CCP propaganda and media control, the master key seems to lie in a fundamentally different conception of democracy.
The survey demonstrated a Chinese notion of democracy closely associated with populism, reflecting the country's socialist credentials but also a belief in the idea of benevolent dictatorship, which can be traced back to imperial times (Shi, 2008). China's Confucian heritage is similarly reflected in the high levels of institutional trust, which rest on traditional values of hierarchy and collectivism.
The key democratic pillar of accountability, moreover, is also manifested in Chinese society - albeit in a different form than the strictly procedural definition associated with free elections. In the East Asian context, accountability is more appropriately defined in terms of what Francis Fukuyama (2012) calls "substantive outcomes", and on this premise the CCP leadership has certainly delivered, raising substantially the living standard of millions. Indeed, in accordance with this East Asian accountability definition, the majority of citizens in China and its neighboring democracies were found to prioritize economic development over democracy (Shi, 2008).
That economic growth takes priority over democracy has been the hallmark of East Asian development. Indeed, all successful East Asian economies, with the rule-proving exception of Hong Kong, were led to high growth by competent authoritarian developmental states (Ohno, 2013).
The difficult reconciliation of democracy and development is often ascribed to the need for massive and rapid resource mobilization to foster economic growth. A task for which the democratic toolkit of accommodation and compromise is inherently ill-suited (Leftwich, 2005). The institutional choice between fast growth or democracy is nowhere more apparent than in the breakneck investment speed and intensity of autocratic China compared to the slow infrastructural development and low investment rates of democratic India (Pei, 2006).
Yet, while economic growth undoubtedly conferred significant legitimacy on autocratic East Asian states, the same development eventually brought them to their knees, as new middle classes asserted their demands for influence.
The circumstances in China, however, may prove different, as the Chinese regime is taking marked steps to advance economic democratization so as to head off unrest motivated by increasing inequalities. Starting with the 11th Five-Year Plan [2006-2010] the CCP leadership has adopted a significant shift in policy towards more inclusive and socially responsible growth (Naughton, 2011). Moreover, while the trend trailing the global financial crisis has been one of scaled-back government elsewhere in the world, China has intensified its commitment to direct state intervention in the economy. State-owned enterprises have been consolidated; even strengthened, and social policies boosted (Naughton, 2011).
China will remain exceptional
The legitimacy of CCP leadership rests on several supportive pillars, making it less vulnerable than many commentators make it seem. While the until now most significant legitimizing factor, the regime's exceptional economic performance, is likely to diminish in importance, as growth rates inevitably level off, other elements play a more fundamental and therefore durable role.
Firstly, China's populace appears to appreciate a level of democracy under the current set of circumstances which is far more advanced than a Western definitional standard would concede. Chinese citizens already consider their society democratic in ways that matter to them, thus greatly reducing calls for regime change.
Moreover, trust in political institutions is higher than in China's democratic neighbors, underpinned by ancient ideals of hierarchy and collectivism.
And finally, while performance legitimacy may stand to decline, the regime seems well on the way to building a new economic pillar on which future CCP governance can comfortably rest. Chinese economic development is moving in a markedly democratizing direction, broadening the base of beneficiaries, and the success of this process may ultimately allow China to remain exceptional in solving the conundrum of sustained economic growth under authoritarian leadership.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Fukuyama, F. (2012). "China and East Asian Democracy: The Patterns of History". Journal of Democracy, 23(1), pp. 14-26.
Leftwich, A. (2005). "Democracy and Development: Is There Institutional Incompatibility?". Democratization, 12(5), pp. 686-703.
Ohno, K. (2013). "The East Asian Growth Regime and Political Development". In K. Ohno & I. Ohno (eds.), Eastern and Western Ideas for African Growth. Routledge, New York.
Pei, M. (2006). "China: Can Economic Growth Continue without Political Reform?". In A.J. Tellis & M. Wills (eds.), Strategic Asia 2006-07: Trade, Interdependence and Security. The National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle.
Pei, M. (2012). "China and East Asian Democracy: Is CCP Rule Fragile or Resilient?". Journal of Democracy, 23(1), pp. 27 - 41.
Naughton, B. (2011). "China's Economic Policy Today: The New State Activism". Eurasian Geography and Economics, 52, pp. 313 - 29.
Shi, T. (2008). "China: Democratic Values Supporting an Authoritarian System". In Y. Chu et al. (eds.), How East Asians View Democracy, pp. 209-37. Columbia University Press, New York.
Lisbeth Moeller is a Master student of International Economic Policy, specializing on China and East Asia