China’s transformation from the backward, autocratic economy of just three decades ago is probably the most spectacular and rapid in history. It is inevitable that this extraordinary economic development will have dramatic consequences for Chinese society and politics. Most important are the rise of the middle classes and the institutionalisation of social, economic, and ultimately political systems that reflect the greater standards of accountability, transparency, and rule of law needed for the successful operation of free markets. Many say that these developments serve as the drivers of political liberalisation and democratisation. This argument, that free-market reforms and rising prosperity will inevitably and imminently bring democracy to China, is a mainstay of Western engagement with the country.
Since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, China is now three times as rich, but seemingly further away from political reform than it was then. China is no longer seen as the last great authoritarian domino waiting to fall. It is now perceived more as a new and sustainable model for autocrats everywhere—from Asia to Africa and South America—to learn from.
This paper begins by examining the case for why many believe democratisation in China is imminent. But it goes on to argue that this confidence is premature, if not misplaced, and that the impetus for democracy has been lost over the past two decades.
A common mistake is to assume that while China’s economy and society is rapidly changing, its authoritarian political institutions remain static. In fact, its institutions are rapidly adapting to a newer social and economic environment. Those too quick to proclaim democracy on the horizon in China have underestimated the determination, capacity, and resourcefulness of the regime in its efforts to remain in power.
Many who believe democracy is imminent also misunderstand the structure of the Chinese economy, which largely remains a state-dominated system rather than a free-market one. By strategically controlling economic resources and remaining the primary dispenser of economic opportunity and success in Chinese society, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is building institutions and supporters that seem to be entrenching the Party’s monopoly on power. Indeed, in many ways, reforms and the country’s economic growth have actually enhanced the CCP’s ability to remain in power. Rather than being swept away by change, the CCP is in many ways its agent and beneficiary.
To be sure, we have no choice but to continue to engage with China in the hope that continued economic reforms and rising prosperity there will eventually lead to political reform. But we should reject the blind and deterministic logic that a rising China will inevitably become a democratic one. Even if we believe that authoritarian China is on the wrong side of history, so far it is doing a good job of defying it.