Can China become a democracy?

Hong Kong - Umbrella Movement (Foto: PH Yang). Elcano Blog
(Foto: PH Yang) Hong Kong - Umbrella Movement (Photo by PH Yang). Elcano Blog
Hong Kong - Umbrella Movement (Foto: PH Yang). Elcano Blog
(Foto: PH Yang) Hong Kong – Umbrella Movement (Photo by PH Yang). Elcano Blog

Hong Kong’s students have shaken a world that is right now far from needing a crisis in China, despite the protesters have awakened sympathies in the West. The crisis in Hong Kong has not fizzled out and the embers of demands for constitutional change and democracy remain and perhaps even flare up again. But Hong Kong is not China. And the big question is not whether Hong Kong can become democratic but whether China can.

Some consider it an inevitable consequence of economic growth that when per capita income reaches above US$10,000, democracy will come of its own volition along with a burgeoning middle class (although the majority in China will remain very poor). In 2006 the scholar Minxin Pei published a book titled China’s Trapped Transition that was based on this proposition and that inspired some interesting reflections from Fareed Zakaria. But not all share this opinion, although in the West it might be thought politically incorrect not to do so.

Singapore’s ‘Minister Mentor’ and historic leader, Lee Kuan Yew, aged 91, despite its bent towards authoritarianism is, however, someone one must always listen to and read carefully when analysing Asia and China. In a recent book (Lee Kuan Yew. The Grand Master’s Insights, Graham Allison, Ed., 2013) he commented: ‘China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse. Of that, I am quite sure, and the Chinese intelligentsia also understands that. If you believe that there is going to be a revolution of some sorts in China for democracy, you are wrong. (…) The Chinese people want a revived China. (…) The Chinese fear chaos and will always err on the side of caution. (…)  To achieve the modernization of China, her Communist leaders are prepared to try all and every method except for democracy with one person and one vote in a multiparty system’.

In his excellent book On China (2011), the artificer of the new understanding between Washington and Beijing, Henry Kissinger does not devote much space to the issue of democracy. He spends even less time on it in his last work, World Order (2014), despite China being a significant presence in the book. And the way this new China integrates into the international is vital, especially considering the West’s declining stamp on it. What can be distilled from Kissinger’s work is the idea, also expressed by Minxin Pei in a recent article, that many causes of friction will persist in China’s dealings with the West until the political system in the world’s most populous country changes.

This is a debate that is current in the Chinese elites themselves, in a now more open society but still under enormous restrictions. The Chinese want to settle their future by themselves, and the truth is that little can be done from the outside to exert any influence. Perhaps what there is right now in Chinese society, which has never known democracy, is a greater demand for freedom, the rule of law and human rights, rather than for democracy itself. At this stage it is important to make a distinction between these concepts. There is also a yearning for economic and social progress in order to become a xiǎokāngshehui, ie, a moderately well-off society.

The Chinese Communist Party and the bureaucracy that it dominates is heir to the Confucian system, and Confucius himself now has a statue in Tiananmen. What has increased is Chinese society’s intolerance towards corruption, against which President Xi Jinping is attempting to fight. He has begun to talk of political change, but has rejected Western democracy. He is against a multiparty system, but not against somewhat competitive elections for the governments of some smaller municipalities, for instance, something that Lee Kuan Yew also sees feasible. The city-state of Hong Kong –remember, one country, two systems–, which had freedom but not democracy when under British rule, might be a good place to start. Taiwan has succeeded. Perhaps China will end up going down the same road as Singapore. But today, judging by Lee Kuan Yew’s words, it seems unlikely to go in that direction. Should its economy stop growing there might be social unrest and that would affect all of us very negatively. It would indeed be a black swan. But it could come to pass.