Why China Will Become a Democracy

Saturday, January 30, 1999

Without exception, rich countries are democracies (more or less) and stay that way. Some poor countries are also democracies, but most are not. And few of the poor democracies stay democratic over time. Although the progression isn’t always smooth, the historical pattern is clear: As countries get richer, they become more democratic.

The Asian nations are no exception—notwithstanding rhetoric about how Asian values differ from Western ones. As they became middle-income countries, Taiwan and South Korea, for instance, turned into democracies. Rich Singapore is a mixed case, but Freedom House (which annually rates all countries according to their political and civil rights) scores it as “partly free.”

What about China’s political future? Currently, the country is run by a Leninist party that brooks no political opposition; controls over people’s lives remain, including the right to have children; there is no freedom to publicly voice views distasteful to the regime; and, to varying degrees, religious practices are suppressed. Despite Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s professed regard for Western-style freedom and the rule of law, he makes it clear that the Communist Party will remain supreme.

But the political positives are also substantial and growing in China. Personal liberties have advanced greatly. The threefold increase in average incomes since 1980 is not only giving people more and better material goods, it is also making them less vulnerable to the dictates of bosses, bureaucrats, and the police. No longer is a state-provided job the only way to avoid starvation.

There are other changes: Controls on personal and home life are eroding (especially for the huge “floating population” of people not connected to work units), educational levels are increasing, and people have vastly greater access to information about China and the outside world. (There are also negative changes in the quality of life, including an increase in corruption and crime.)

The People’s Republic of China is no longer a totalitarian regime. Younger, better-educated people have been replacing older cadres in the Communist Party; this does not make them democrats, but it does make them more open to new ideas. The political system is becoming less centralized, a change that allows for more diversity and experimentation not only in economic affairs but also, within limits, in politics. For instance, the central authorities no longer hand out lists of people to be appointed far down into the provincial governments. And elections, increasingly with elements of competition reaching beyond the Communist Party, are held in villages. Elections might be extended to townships within the next several years; after that might come the counties and so on.

The historical pattern is clear: As countries get richer, they become more democratic.

There is the beginning of a rule of law, a process that entails struggle between an established system and an emerging one. In the old one, the judiciary lacks independence. The new system trying to emerge has laws, limits to the arbitrary decisions of judges, and better-educated judges and lawyers. Still, despite significant movement in this direction, a great deal more needs to be done before it can be said the Chinese live under a rule of law.

For twenty years, China’s economy has been growing at a remarkable 6 percent a year on average, measured in international prices. If all continues to go well (not a sure thing), by 2015 China will have a per capita GDP of about $7,000—the level at which all previous countries have become at least “partly free” in the Freedom House ratings. Although no one is likely to confuse China that year with, say, Sweden, it’s likely the Chinese will join the club of nations well along on the road to democracy within two decades from now.

Of course, it is hard to predict the timing of political changes. To take a recent example, some people realized that the Soviet economy was on the ropes in the 1980s, but hardly anyone predicted that the regime was about to collapse. Clearly, though, the question today is not whether China will become a society that honors basic political and civil rights but when.

If you doubt that, try the following thought experiment: Imagine a prosperous China, with an educated, well-informed, home-owning, and well-traveled population engaged in a host of transactions with the rest of the world. Now imagine that this population is still ruled by a party with something like the monopoly of power and controls over behavior that exist today. The combination simply doesn’t compute.

Either China will remain relatively poor and authoritarian, or it will become rich and pluralistic—and it seems to have chosen the latter path.