Tuesday, January 06, 2009

From the mailbag

Catelli asks, in comments:
Why do you say "When democracy comes to China"? Isn't that more of an if? What real chance does democracy have in being established in China?
And it's a fair question. No doubt some -- much?? -- of that assertion is my basic agreement with the Reverend Doctor -- "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice" -- but any student of Chinese politics (as I was in a previous academic life) spends a lot of time learning about the early, failed attempts to bring democracy to China. What really stands out about the early 20th-century attempts to bring democracy to China is a) how little state capacity existed in China at the time (China then being in many ways weaker than Afghanistan is today internally) and b) how undemocratic a lot of it actually was. Nevertheless, there's a heritage of pro-democratic thought in China going back much further than Tiananmen, and indeed the Communists today share a lot of that ideological heritage, though obviously not the practice.

The point of all this is to note that there's a current of democratic thought in China that continues to this day, and many of the more respected scholars of Chinese politics believe that the current regime simply cannot surive, long-term, the challenges of modernization. I happen to agree with that, and have argued rather vehemently in this space against voices in American opinion that try and build Chinese Communism in to an existential threat to liberal democracy, even when those voices come from the allegedly "left" side of the spectrum.

To put it bluntly, almost 60 years after Mao announced the People's Republic of China, the actual Chinese people have yet to really be sold on the deal. There's reason to believe they might, by and large, take the bargain the CCP offers them -- basically, "prosperity" for the Party's continued control -- and indeed that's the concern of the New Yorker article that started this all. I'm more skeptical, largely because the Party was having a hard enough time keeping a lid on unrest before the global economy went in to the shitter, and it seems likely to get a lot worse now. Clearly, if the party can't actually deliver on the "prosperity" part of the deal, the Chinese people might just decide to, ahem, renegotiate.

And this is where we get to one of those good-news/bad-news things. Because if an opportunity for Chinese democracy comes around again, this time China will be less of a failed state and more of a modern, mature nation-state. That offers much better odds for the survival of actual democratic governance in China. The problem is the mature nation-state in question is extremely well-armed and has any number of options to suppress domestic unrest. So any actual contest for power could get extraordinarily bloody very quickly.

One last thing I think people should grok early on: a democratic China is about as likely to "free" Tibet or Xinjiang, or relax its claims on Taiwan, as Canada is likely to relax its claims on Quebec. So it really is the case that there will be plenty of potential for conflict with a democratic China, even if a thousand flower bloom in the Middle Kingdom.

1 comment:

Catelli said...


I would agree that an attempt at democracy will asset itself in China (assuming western democracies don't go kablooie from their own ineptitude in managing the economy, environment, etc.)

I would believe that any attempt has a small chance of success. The biggest obstacle to success is the entrenched corruption in all levels of society (a la Russia). When the greedy start accumulating wealth during the inevitable turmoil, people start blaming the change (democratic process) for the problem.