China’s Democratic Future

Democracy in China is not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’, according to Bruce Gilley, in his book “China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead”. According to Gilley, a democratic future in China lies just around the corner. Gilley describes different scenarios on how this democratization in China will come about. He then poses the question: That being so, where it lead?

Bruce Gilley begins his book by identifying the basics of what democracy is. First and foremost, Gilley says, democracy is a system where the leaders are selected through free and fair elections. In pointing this out, Gilley also addresses common issues: Tolerance, liberalism and judicial impartiality. That being said, Gilley says democracy is definitely in China’s future.

He then addresses what consequences democracy may have for a country. There are two sides here. Inasmuch as democracy lends government legitimacy and freedom, it may also lead to violence, criminal acts and possibly, civil war. In the short run, there is the risk of stagnation and economic shrinkage. But in the long run, Gilley foresees steady economic growth taking over.

How will China’s culture respond to democracy? Noting its core Confucian roots, Gilley admits this cultural core is fundamentally antidemocratic. However, he also points out that all countries that are democratic today did not start out that way. They were once nondemocratic, too. This has happened to countries in the West and other parts of the world. Certainly, it can happen to any country, including China, Gilley says.

The author then considers the wishes of China’s people. He notes that all fields of people, including the intellectuals, say they want democracy and the reign of a popular voice. Gilley adds that the Chinese Communist Party and the influential military are also advocating liberalism. China is presently in a pro democracy stage.

Previous studies have suggested that utilitarian regimes tend to crumble when GDP per capita swells to between 3,000 and 10,000 dollars. A World Bank estimate indicated that in 2002, the GDP swelled to $4,000 in terms of purchasing power in China.

How Will China Democratize?

Gilley outlines several developments in China that point towards democracy. These include a growing kind of rule of law, an emergent civil society, ongoing debates on democracy within the CPP, political structural changes, continuous international communication, efforts towards globalization and even de-politicization of the military, among others. Gilley predicts that China will undergo three stages in its path to democratization:

The Crisis: This will occur when differences emerge between authoritarian rule and the normal crisis. He outlines two aspects of the same: it could be national and then be blamed on the very regime itself, or a political-economic crisis that first appears remote and unimportant — before suddenly landing at center stage. Gilley believes that China as a country may not face an economic slowdown. However, he does admit that it is still a possibility, going by the model of other countries when they were new democracies. One of the economic problems that China currently faces is a 7 percent GDP deficit, that can only be solved by printing more money- a phenomenon that may easily lead to inflation if not properly checked.

The Mobilization: The tendency of people and societies is to respond to crisis by reorganizing themselves. Mobilizing becomes intense if the crisis stands on the political arena and various activist groups band together with some elite reformist groups to mobilize and demand change.

Defection of the Elite and a Democratic Breakthrough: Once mobilization has been accomplished and the elite gains majority support, they finally announce that the only way to deal with the present crisis is to reform the existing political system. They then establish an interim government, which will announce a date when the elections will be held, and once they are held, democracy is achieved. Gilley asserts that the defection of the elite society from the rest of the people is the key to the onset of a democratic society.

Consolidation of Democracy

Gilley observes that during democracy’s third wave, a total of 29 democratic governments have managed to survive. These include the democratic governments of Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. However, some of them seem to have reached a point of stagnation. The next issue, then, is to ensure that democracy will last. In the case of China, there are mixed views on this. However, with proper management, then it is highly likely that China will have the opportunity to become a consolidated democracy.

Why is this so? For several reasons — China has a significant middle class with a lot of determination, a market economy, a de facto decentralized government, a democratic legacy, an emerging rule of law, a functioning state apparatus and a de-politicized military. The factors that work against a prosperous democracy in China, however, are numerous ethnic divisions, income inequalities, corruption, fiscal weaknesses, a disorganized opposition and a general antidemocratic cultural mindset.

It is also unknown what choices will be made by China’s political elites. However, great success can be attained if the decisions the elite makes are intended for the nation’s prosperity — and not to satisfy the selfish goals of some leaders who present themselves as a gateway to the cake. The decisions of the political elite will affect the whole face of democratic China in a massive way.

What Will a Democratic China Mean to the World?

The democratization of China will mean a fundamental change to global politics at every level, basically. It will come in terms of “soft power”, that is, the ability to influence the nations of the world at large. This is a legitimate claim. Representing 1.3b people, China will basically become the world’s largest democracy.

Gilley is also of the view that a democratized China will lead to questions such as equitable allocation of national resources and issues about the fair distribution of resources globally, among others. There is an argument today that globalization is producing characteristically rich countries that are getting richer while the poor countries get poorer. There are feelings that a democratic China will provide clear answers to these concerns.

That being said, other questions remain, and rather large ones at that: Is the world prepared to deal with a democratic China? And if that is so, what will (and should) the global response be? Gilley’s next book may have to tackle these questions.

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