Prospects for Chinese Democracy Aren't Good, Panel Says

The panel discussion at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco on Oct. 5, 2009. (Asia Society Northern California)

SAN FRANCISCO, October 5, 2009 – As China’s economic success and middle class have grown, many predicted that it would follow the historic Western trend toward democracy, but that perception is changing. With the collapse of America’s economy and stalemates in Congress over the past year, China’s model of non-democratic government is gaining legitimacy at home and credibility internationally. What this means is that while the Chinese Communist Party is delivering the goods economically, it is not likely to deliver democracy anytime soon. 

This was the sobering message at “The Future of Democracy in China,” a panel discussion on October 5 in San Francisco with Minxin Pei, adjunct senior associate in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Harry Harding, Dean of the University of Virginia's Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross director of the Asia Society Center on US-China Relations. The panel, co-sponsored by the Asia Foundation and the Word Affairs Council of  Northern California, was moderated by Jonathan R. Stromseth, The Asia Foundation's Country Representative to China.

As Schell put it, throughout the 20th century the Chinese struggled to catch up to their neighbors and to Western superpowers, constantly reinventing their political system with the view that each stage was a waypoint to some undefined final governmental model; perhaps democracy. But after the economic crisis hit the US hard and left China relatively unscathed, Chinese citizens began to have more faith and confidence in the authoritarian model of their government. 

“They [the Chinese] see the United States Congress as totally paralyzed, incapable of doing anything. They see a brilliant new government in Washington, with Obama appointing all these incredible people to positions of power, and they’re basically incapable of effecting policy,” Schell said. 

But just because the Party does not plan to share power anytime soon doesn’t mean it isn’t working on reforms. In recent years, the party has worked to increase accountability through anti-corruption measures, solicited public input in the lawmaking process, and loosened its reins on NGOs. Harding described this form of one-party rule as “consultative authoritarianism.”

“The Chinese Communist Party has not launched a gradual process of democratization, as some had predicted. Rather, it has launched a very impressive series of political reforms that have tried to make an authoritarian system more effective, more efficient, more accountable to some degree and more responsive, but not significantly institutionally more pluralistic,” Harding said.

Of course, nobody can predict the future, particularly with the many problems and internal conflicts that still plague China’s government. While many citizens have bought the social contract offering economic gain at the expense of political freedoms, ethnic riots, food shortages, pollution, and global warming are all challenges that could incite renewed calls for systemic change.

“It’s quite robust, it’s quite successful, and yet underneath there are foundations of Jell-O everywhere you look — can this last?” Schell asked, adding that neither he nor the other panelists could definitively predict whether China was headed for true democracy or whether its current model is sustainable.

“What’s going to happen to us is perhaps the more interesting question than ‘what’s going to happen to China’ and for that, I have no answer either,” Schell said. “But I certainly do hope that this great experiment in American democracy, which we’re all on, can find a way to undergo something of a renaissance, or we may find ourselves out-competed, by whatever it is that China is doing.” 

Reported by Caitlin Kelly-Sneed, Asia Society San Francisco Center