Honolulu, July 24 : Conventional wisdom has it that economic development spurs the growth of democracy. Apparently, no one told the Chinese.
“The experiences of the past years fly in the face of conventional wisdom” in China, according to Teresa Wright, a visiting fellow at the East-West Center (EWC) and professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach. She notes, “Public pressure for democracy has declined as capitalistic economic development has progressed.”
“The decline in public calls for democratic reform since 1989 (when student-inspired protests resulted in the Tiananmen Square incident) is all the more striking,” Wright says, “given the restiveness of the citizenry during this period.” She notes that in recent years China has seen tens of thousands of yearly protests, and the numbers continue to climb as economic inequity grows along with economic development. “Yet,” she says, “almost none have challenged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” Instead, Wright states, the demonstrators have typically targeted their anger at local employers or officials and have looked to the central government for redress.
The Chinese experience of the past almost sixty years may provide some of the answers.
“The demands of disgruntled citizens display the legacy of socialist institutions and beliefs,” Wright says. “Chinese workers do not seem to view liberal democracy as a solution to their ills.” To the contrary, she adds, “they express support for socialist economic and social guarantees and protections, and seem willing to support authoritarian political rulers that provide these benefits.” Wright adds that they “have nowhere to turn but the communist party which continues to pay lip service to their needs.”
The desire for protection and the fear of change may explain the motivation of the economic ‘losers’ in China, but what of the new upwardly mobile ‘winners’, those who have benefited from China’s capitalistic course?
They, too, show little desire for dramatic change toward a liberal democracy.
“The (economic) winners have an interest in maintaining the (authoritarian) political status quo that has served them well,” according to Wright. They, too, see the central government as a source of protection and as the facilitator of their prosperity.
That both the ‘losers’ and the ‘winners’ in China’s capitalistic economic race toward modernity are looking toward the CCP for protection also says a lot about the communist party in Beijing and its current policies.
Wright points out that the CCP has, so far, continued to “walk a tightrope very successfully”. It has welcomed successful private entrepreneurs into its fold as party members, fostering among these economic winners a belief that they have a stake in the system, and that their economic prosperity depends upon maintaining the status quo.
The Big Tent attitude extends to other sectors of society as well. Workers and former workers in State-Owned-Enterprises, despite the major reforms of the late-1990s that hit both groups hard, also support CCP rule. Current SOE workers see, much as the private entrepreneurs, that their well-being still rests on connections to the CCP and that their perceived “privileged status” hinges on no, or very slow, political change. Those SOE workers who lost their jobs because of the reforms and who saw a severe decline in their economic status as a result still cling to the belief in, and continued promises of, the central government and Party simply because it is their only hope.
Other workers in enterprises funded in part by foreign investment, privately-owned Chinese companies and migrant workers have also turned to Beijing for much the same reason as the other groups. Despite the view from outside China that these workers are being exploited in Western terms, they can point to improved material conditions and are more prosperous than in years past. These workers, much as the others, look to the central government to protect their status and gains.
College-educated urbanites and intellectuals, major promoters of political reform in the post-Mao era, post-1989 have been following the same path as others. They have increasingly joined the CCP and have traded calls for political change for the promise of increased prosperity. Even the small group of mostly middle-aged and older so-called “disestablished” intellectuals who have continued the call for political change only go so far. They have clearly come down on the side of social rather than liberal democracy.
Wright sees little on the horizon that might change the political landscape in China, absent a dramatic and drastic economic crisis. But long-term, the very success of the CCP’s policies and continued economic growth could pose a threat to the status quo. Wright says it is possible that as the economy grows and the benefits gradually spread across various sectors, leading to greater economic equality, Chinese ‘winners’ may be less fearful of political change and the ‘losers’ may “have less reason to cling to the old socialist benefits of the past, and thus the party that historically provided those benefits.”
However, Wright reminds, “The CCP has been able to walk that tightrope very well for a long time.” And that without a major economic upheaval, over time, the Party could lead China toward if not a liberal democracy, a Chinese one.