The Key to Bringing Democracy to China

At Foreign Policy, MIT’s Yasheng Huang suggests that the best way to promote democracy in China would be to stress elite self-interest over moral values. Huang also challenges the argument that asking China to democratise after thirty years of massive economic growth under Party rule is, in Eric X. Li’s words, “like asking Apple to turn itself into RIM.”

It’s time for the United States to pivot to a new approach toward influencing China’s political future: explaining that democracy produces concrete benefits such as balanced growth, stability, and personal security — even for top Communist Party officials. This performance-based argument will resonate with many of China’s economic and intellectual elites and may have a chance to influence the thinking of Xi Jinping and his fellow top officials.
But first, it’s necessary to dispel the widespread myth that China’s current political and economic system is uniquely responsible for China’s growth. Yes, in the last 30 years, China has done a remarkable job of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but we must keep this achievement in perspective. One reason the post-Mao leadership lifted so many people out of poverty is because Mao Zedong kept so many Chinese poor. (In 1979, showing remarkable candor, the Chinese Communist Party itself publicly acknowledged that per capita grain consumption of Chinese remained stagnant between 1957 and 1978.) Second, the poverty threshold is commonly defined as living under $1 a day. Living above that line is an improvement — not prosperity. Based on data provided by the World Bank in 2008, roughly 30 percent of China’s population, or 390 million people, lived below $2 a day. By this measure, China has a comparable percentage of people living in poverty as Honduras, a country that never experienced China’s rapid GDP growth.
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2 Responses to The Key to Bringing Democracy to China

  1. Will says:

    Yasheng Huang makes some important points–the main reason there has been such a high level of economic improvement over the past 30 years is that the PRC economy had been stagnating or growing very slowly during much of the Mao Era, and thus starting from a very low baseline around 1980. By loosening the old Maoist economic straitjacket, the post-Mao party-state under Deng and his successors was not doing anything so remarkable or inspirational. Look at how much poverty and devastation there was in Europe after the war ended in 1945 and how much economic improvement there was by 1975.
    It’s in political leaders’ interest to declare their assets and publicize their tax returns in a system that affords them legal protections and security. Politicians like Romney with Swiss bank accounts and who refused to reveal more than two years of tax returns were ultimately repudiated–CCP leaders with their overseas bank accounts and property should take note.

  2. Ampontan says:

    As the disaster that is the Arab Spring should make clear, there are conditions for the successful implementation of democracy. To be successful it has to be introduced into a stable polity with the guaranteed rule of law. The Chinese have a way to go yet before they are ready for democracy.