Accountable authoritarianism: why China’s democratic deficit will last

31 Oct 2013

This paper argues that the Chinese Communist Party’s evolving model of ‘accountable authoritarianism’ is set to prove that prosperity need not produce democracy.

Executive summary

The last two centuries seem to stand testament to the widely assumed connection between prosperity and democracy. In 1800, there was not a single bona fide democracy in the world, and global GDP per capita hovered around a mere US$667. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution’s massive productivity gains and worldwide industrialisation, global GDP per capita was pushed to just shy of US$12,000 in 2011, while the number of democracies rose to an all-time high of 96. This mirrors a striking correlation between economic development and democratisation in particular countries: In the past 200 years, the transition from dictatorship to democracy, on average, accompanied an increase in a country’s GDP per capita of US$33,330.

In the last few decades, however, the connection between economic development and democratisation has frayed. Between 1972 and 2012, the transition from dictatorship to democracy would have, on average, required an increase in a country’s GDP per capita of a staggering US$499,999. At the same time, the global spread of democracy stalled in the face of a revitalised authoritarian challenge. Typified by the seemingly perpetual presidency of Vladimir Putin in Russia and the monarchical and Islamist House of Thani in Qatar, authoritarian regimes around the world are successfully plotting paths to relative peace and prosperity.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) arguably presides over the leading model of successful authoritarian rule. Under the stewardship of a one-party state, China now boasts the world’s second-largest economy, a middle-class of more than 400 million, and an average annual economic growth rate of more than 10% over the last 35 years. Despite this spectacular explosion of prosperity, it is commonly believed that the economic, social and political shortcomings of China’s authoritarian system will make democratic reforms essential, while the country’s rapidly expanding middle-class will demand more accountability and political freedom from government.

Contrary to dire predictions, the CCP’s authoritarian one-party system looks set to buck the trend of democratic reforms following economic development and an expanding middle-class. As much as 75% of the Chinese middle-class think that citizens do not need to participate in government decision-making, and only 25% believe multiple parties should be able to contest elections. Furthermore, 72% of Chinese say they are satisfied with national conditions, and 76% expect to improve their position in society over the next five years.

Although ensuring that the one-party state is able to meet rising expectations requires robust reforms to stamp out corruption, mitigate environmental degradation, and rein in government interference in society, the CCP seems to have the will and wherewithal to see through such an ambitious agenda. The CCP is authoritarian in that it will not countenance any challenge to its grip on government, and yet it also has the capacity to undertake necessary reforms to bolster its power and stave off popular dissatisfaction.

The CCP’s evolving model of ‘accountable authoritarianism’ combines top-down decision-making with sensitivity to popular opinion to ensure that public policy broadly reflects society’s preferences. Notwithstanding ‘black swan’ events that could precipitate regime change (e.g. severe inflation or a major economic slowdown) the political survival of the CCP’s accountable authoritarian system is secure. By pursuing a moderate reformist agenda within the framework of one-party rule, the CCP is set to prove that prosperity need not produce democracy.

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