Democracy v China
What China challenges
Jul 11th 2011, 13:54 by M.S.
MY COLLEAGUE at Free exchange made a series of good pointsin arguing that the rise of China shouldn’t really challenge our certainty that in order for countries to become and remain wealthy, they need to be democratic. He’s quite right that an overwhelming majority of wealthy countries are democratic, and that China isn’t wealthy yet. I think there are two questions here. The first is whether China is in the long run going democratic as it gets rich. The second is whether, if it doesn’t, this implies anything broader about the inevitability of democracy in other wealthy modern countries.
My views on this subject are influenced by having lived for many years in the world’s other fast-growing capitalist communist confucian country, Vietnam, and watching predictions that rising wealth leads to democratisation fail to bear any but the most modest of fruit. China and Vietnam have structures and cultures of governance that are about as similar as one can expect for cross-country comparisons. And what’s striking in both countries is the remarkable absence of any serious challenge to Communist Party domination of every corner of political life. Both countries have dissidents aplenty; but these dissidents have no public organisations, and, at the first hint that organisations are beginning to form, they’re quickly dismantled through arrest and intimidation.
Of course, many autocracies are competent at attacking and dismantling political threats. Fewer repressive autocracies have been able to produce well-founded economic growth for decades in a row, though there, too, there are success stories. But what sets China and Vietnam apart is the ability of their governing institutions to carry out long-term stable political succession. The communist parties of Vietnam and China are very different from the relatively flimsy and short-lived governing parties of most single-party dictatorships, usually constructed around a single personality and his relatives and cronies. Since the late 1970s, they have managed transitions to new generations of leadership every five years with very little disruption. In part this is due to mechanisms and traditions within these parties that provide for some level of internal democracy, or at least of peaceful factional competition. But the ability to recruit new cadres, allow them to rise through the system, assume top leadership positions, and then push them into retirement, without being overwhelmed by nepotism or personality cults, makes this type of autocracy markedly different from the weak family-run shell parties or military fronts that have run or are running autocratic shows in Indonesia, South Korea, Syria, Iraq, Chile, Spain, Burma and so on. And, obviously, China and Vietnam no longer have to worry about the great weakness that doomed single-party rule in most of the ex-communist world, ie pointless and crippling state-socialist economic policies.
The combination of smooth political succession and strong economic growth helps explain why China is more stable than the USSR was at a similar level of development. In 1990, just before its collapse/democratic transition, the USSR had a PPP-adjusted per-capita GDP of just under $7,000 (in 1990 Geary-Khamis international dollars), according to Angus Maddison, whose research everybody seems to use on this. Mr Maddison put China at $4,800 (same units) in 2003; since then its economy has grown by 8-10% a year, suggesting it’s now richer than the USSR ever was. Having spent a few months in the USSR in 1990, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case. (Though Chinese PPP conversions are controversial. IMF and World Bank figures put Chinese incomes lower than Mr Maddison’s. But others warn the IMF/WB figures are based on 2005 price surveys that were too high, which would mean current Chinese per capita GDP is 21% of America’s, and China will become the world’s largest economy in 2012, not 2016 as the IMF estimates. This ADB paper suggests China is now as rich as the USSR was even as a percentage of contemporaneous US per-capita income, but it puts that figure at almost 30%, which seems absurdly high.) Anyway, China appears to be hitting income levels where other countries have experienced democratic transitions without any sign of a plausible challenge to CPC rule.
Why would that be? Political scientists looking at the relative stability of different autocracies break the category up into subgroups with varying characteristics. For example, a recent paper by Krister Lundell, delivered at what sounds like a truly awesome panel in February in Sao Paulo (“Bad Guys, Good Governance? Varieties of Capitalism in Autocracies”), runs through a bunch of different categorisation schemes in trying to sort out what characteristics might distinguish autocracies that go democratic (or “hybrid”, ie part of the way towards democracy) from those that remain permanent autocracies. He doesn’t come up with much. Income levels, interestingly, don’t seem to be that important. The oil-exporting factor is important, as my colleague mentions. Islamic countries are more likely to stay autocratic, but that’s confounded by the oil-export factor so it’s not clear how important it is. Another significant factor is that autocratic countries that are large, especially in terms of land area, are less likely to cease being autocratic than small ones. And military dictatorships are pretty short-lived, while single-party states and monarchies last longer. China, obviously, is a very large one-party state. But I feel the variables on offer here don’t do justice to the uniqueness of the Chinese and Vietnamese systems. The combination of successful capitalist economies with monopoly parties that can successfully manage non-fatal non-nepotistic leadership transitions six times in a row is new. It’s a big deal.
Now, maybe the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties will fail to manage economic growth to truly developed levels, or will be torn apart by the stresses of increased demand for participation from empowered, educated, wealthy middle classes. Maybe they’re too slow and unwieldy for the modern media environment, as James Fallows writes about the silly internet censorship surrounding rumours of Jiang Zemin’s death. But then again, maybe not. Maybe this morally troubling type of rule, in which the responsibility and privileges of governance are essentially assigned to a guild or corporation with internal but not external competition and mainly informal, not formal, accountability to the broader population, is a sustainable model of governance for a modern society. Or maybe it’s only viable in East Asia, for cultural reasons; anyway, China isn’t seeking to export it anymore, and it’s hard to see how any other country could start to build such a model in an era when peasant revolutions seem to be a thing of the past.
I confess I can’t really imagine what a fully developed wealthy society with a single-party state would look like. But a few years back I visited the then-leader of Singapore’s tiny opposition party in his apartment, where he was under house arrest. He was under house arrest because he was unable to pay his debts, and he was in debt because the state had convicted him of slander and fined him hundreds of thousands of dollars for saying, in effect, that Singapore is not a democracy. Which is a nice little manoeuvre. People in Singapore are, in my experience, even more afraid of talking about these kinds of issues than people in Vietnam are. But Singapore is extremely well-governed on most dimensions, and it’s not clear when a transition in power is ever going to occur. Singapore is also significantly richer than the United States. All of which is why it’s often cited as a model by Vietnamese and Chinese political elites. Many people feel this system of government can’t be scaled up from an island city-state like Singapore to a large country like Vietnam or China, which is perhaps why my colleague restricted his survey of wealthy countries to those with populations over 10m. But the thing is, political-science researchers widely conclude that small countries, and especially islands, are more likely to be democracies, not less.
But granting for the sake of argument that China could become as wealthy as Singapore, or at least Spain, without becoming a democracy. So what? Would this say anything about democracy in the modern world overall, or would it just say something about China? Obviously, there is zero risk of a single-party takeover in any developed multiparty democracy in the world. This isn’t the 1930s; it’s not even the 1970s.
Rather, I’d phrase the risk this way. My broad feeling is that representative democratic institutions are not functioning right now as they did 20 or 30 years ago. When we look at countries trying to make the transition to stable democratic rule, such as Thailand or Russia, we see that they’re trying to institutionalise democracy as it exists in the early 21st century, and that it’s very hard to do, because the forces enlisted are often too powerful to be contained by institutional restraints. Just like wealthy democracies these days, they have personality-driven political campaigns fueled by wealthy donors who fund or control integrated media empires, candidacies shaped by professional consultants, and internet/flashmob street rallies and self-branded grassroots movements (“colour” movements, tea-party groups and so on). The “Daily Me” phenomenon simultaneously organises and polarises partisan participants into angry camps who can barely understand each others’ language. It often seems impossible for contestants for power to win and consolidate legitimacy, because it’s easy to build resistance to legitimacy and the rewards are high. It feels to me like there’s a relationship between the “birther” phenomenon and the years of Yellow Shirt refusal to accept Shinawatra legitimacy, between the “Not a cent for Greece” brinksmanship of the Party for Freedom and the no-taxes debt-ceiling brinksmanship of the tea-party GOP, between constant filibusters in the Senate, the record-length coalition negotiations in Belgium and the rash of hung parliaments recently in Westminster systems.
I think this has to do with the way democracy functions in the current communications environment. Democracy is supposed to build public legitimacy for governance. I think there’s a legitimacy deficit because of the way communications work nowadays. Democracy is also supposed to communicate problems to government so that government can respond. I think the constant crisis-atmosphere contrarianism of the current media and internet environment overwhelms the signal-to-noise ratio there, and preoccupies government with addressing blaring non-issues. And I think this has all weakened the advantage that democracies have generally enjoyed over autocracies in addressing real problems and in generating public support for fixing them. I think the result of that could well be that an increasing number of important policymaking issues are gradually shifted to non-democratic institutions, while political democracy increasingly devolves into a form of reality-TV contest.
Or maybe I’m just contributing to the blaring non-issue alarmism here. Thailand has recently taken a strong turn back towards democracy; maybe the Red Shirt/Yellow Shirt years were just growing pains, no worse than what France went through on its way to democracy in the 19th century, and a lot less bloody. The Arab world has just seen a bunch of autocratic regimes fall, and if some of those countries move towards democracy while others don’t, that’ll be par for the historical course. Here in America, well, if we throw away a perfectly good 200-year-old credit rating, that’ll be pretty dumb, but nobody’s killing each other yet. And American politics were often mean and stupid in the old days too, long before the internet arrived. But what I would say is that we should not be comfortably sure of anything. We’re not in an era when fascism is on the march, but we are in an era when democracy is not generally showing its best governing face. What that means, I think, is that people who believe in democracy on moral grounds should make the case, again, on moral grounds, rather than relying on a comfortable assumption that countries will naturally go democratic as they get richer. And I think the fact that autocracies sometimes enjoy real advantages in policymaking should remind us of the need to behave responsibly in democratic activity and to make sure that our representative institutions are actually capable of governing, and are not paralysed by political brinksmanship.
As for my other colleague’s comments, I pretty much agree with everything he says. He’s probably right that increasing the role of automatic stabilisers would actually be a move towards enhancing democracy by letting political debate focus on deep public issues of what our society should look like, rather than short-term issues of the interaction between unemployment, inflation, private liquidity preference and government spending that Congress really isn’t well equipped to handle agilely.