Putting Democracy in China on Hold

John Lee
28 May 2008 | IA95
Putting Democracy in China on Hold

China’s transformation from the backward, autocratic economy of just three decades ago is probably the most spectacular and rapid in history. It is inevitable that this extraordinary economic development will have dramatic consequences for Chinese society and politics.

Most important are the rise of the middle classes and the institutionalisation of social, economic, and ultimately political systems that reflect the greater standards of accountability, transparency, and rule of law needed for the successful operation of free markets. Many say that these developments serve as the drivers of political liberalisation and democratisation. This argument, that free-market reforms and rising prosperity will inevitably and imminently bring democracy to China, is a mainstay of Western engagement with the country.

Since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, China is now three times as rich, but seemingly further away from political reform than it was then. China is no longer seen as the last great authoritarian domino waiting to fall. It is now perceived more as a new and sustainable model for autocrats everywhere—from Asia to Africa and South America—to learn from.

This paper begins by examining the case for why many believe democratisation in China is imminent.

But it goes on to argue that this confidence is premature, if not misplaced, and that the impetus for democracy has been lost over the past two decades.

A common mistake is to assume that while China’s economy and society is rapidly changing, its authoritarian political institutions remain static. In fact, its institutions are rapidly adapting to a newer social and economic environment. Those too quick to proclaim democracy on the horizon in China have underestimated the determination, capacity, and resourcefulness of the regime in its efforts to remain in power.

Many who believe democracy is imminent also misunderstand the structure of the Chinese economy, which largely remains a state-dominated system rather than a free-market one. By strategically controlling economic resources and remaining the primary dispenser of economic opportunity and success in Chinese society, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is building institutions and supporters that seem to be entrenching the Party’s monopoly on power. Indeed, in many ways, reforms and the country’s economic growth have actually enhanced the CCP’s ability to remain in power. Rather than being swept away by change, the CCP is in many ways its agent and beneficiary.

To be sure, we have no choice but to continue to engage with China in the hope that continued economic reforms and rising prosperity there will eventually lead to political reform. But we should reject the blind and deterministic logic that a rising China will inevitably become a democratic one.

Even if we believe that authoritarian China is on the wrong side of history, so far it is doing a good job of defying it.

Dr John Lee is a Visiting Fellow at CIS and managing director of research and conferences company L21.


Buy Hardcopy
Latest Publications

Eight Housing Affordability Myths
Stephen Kirchner
10 July 2014 | IA146

Australians are conflicted in their attitude to this long-run change in real house prices because they are both investors in housing as an asset class and consumers of housing services. This conflicted attitude on the part of the public is reflected in confused public policies followed by Australian governments. Unfortunately, many of the policies pursued by Australian governments in the…

Still Damaging and Disturbing: Australian Child Protection Data and the Need for National Adoption Targets
Jeremy Sammut
16 April 2014 | IA145

In December 2013, the Abbott government announced plans to make it easier for Australian parents to adopt children both locally and from overseas. Acknowledging the official ‘taboo’ on adoption in Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott ordered an inter-departmental committee to recommend ways to take adoption out of the ‘too-hard’ basket. The chief barrier to raising the number of local adoptions…

Why Jaydon Can’t Read: A Forum on Fixing Literacy
Jennifer Buckingham, Justine Ferrari, Tom Alegounarias
18 February 2014 | IA144

Many thousands of Australian students have very low levels of literacy after spending four or more years at school. The Spring 2014 issue of the CIS journal Policy contained an article called ‘Why Jaydon Can’t Read: How Ideology Triumphed Over Evidence in Teaching Reading’, which concluded that students were not being provided with the most effective evidence-based reading instruction in…

Independent Charities, Independent Regulators: The Future of Not-for-Profit Regulation
Helen Andrews
06 February 2014 | IA143

The Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission was established by the Gillard government in 2012 with the intended purpose of cutting the red tape faced by Australia’s charities. So far, the regulator has failed to make any significant progress on this goal or on its two other main goals: increasing public trust in charities and improving the quality of regulatory oversight…

The New Silence: Family Breakdown and Child Sexual Abuse
Jeremy Sammut
30 January 2014 | IA142

Despite family breakdown exposing children to greater risk of sexual abuse, the issue receives scant attention in this country. Child sexual abuse is not fully and frankly discussed because the public discourse is self-censored by politicians, academics, social service organisations, and the media in compliance with politically correct attitudes towards ‘family diversity’—the socially ‘progressive’ and ‘non-judgmental’ fiction that says the…