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.

[…] Chinese political elites implicitly understand that democracies provide security of property and of persons. When ousted by Bo, Wang Lijun, the former police chief of Chongqing, did not turn to the Chinese Ministry of Justice but the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Other Chinese elites outsource their personal security by sending their family members to study and to reside in the United States; wouldn’t they like a little more of that security closer to home? For democracy to work for China, it has to work for China’s most powerful. There is no other way.

Huang also explored whether democracy stifles economic growth in a 2011 TED talk. The question of Chinese democracy has been debated recently by Martin Jacques and Zhang Weiwei versus Anson Chan and Jonathan Mirsky at Intelligence Squared, and by Eric X. Li versus Minxin Pei at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Li has been a particularly vocal defender of the Party’s record in English-language media, and explained to Rachel Beitarie earlier this year why he believes democracy is not the answer for China. Equally vigorous discussion has centred on the degree of meritocracy in China’s current system.