Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

The Rocky Road to Chinese Democracy

10.07.2010 · Posted in China, Democracy

Wen Jiabao suggests that China will gradually democratize. Should we be holding our breaths?

The Chinese blogosphere is apparently aflutter right now as a result of Premier Wen Jiabao’s remarkably candid interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN. Here Wen tries to allay some of Zakaria’s concerns about Internet censorship (ironically, this interview was reportedly censored in China):

What Wen has to say about the prospects for democracy in China is also causing considerable waves:

I believe I and all the Chinese people have such a conviction that China will make continuous progress, and the people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China. [CNN]

Wen’s words will no doubt encourage those outside China who have an optimistic reading of the country’s political future. Proponents of this view, basing their assessments on the experiences of such countries as Taiwan and South Korea, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines, argue that once China’s citizens acquire a certain level of wealth, they will demand greater legal protection and accountability from their government. This in turn will encourage political reform, more openness, and, eventually, democracy. Just what level of wealth will trigger such political reforms is the subject of debate.

Going by IMF data, Taiwan  saw its per capita GDP go from $7521 to $13,376 when it underwent democratic reforms between 1989 and 1996 ($8985 to $16078 based on PPP). South Korea’s democratic transition took place between 1987 and 1993, during which time its GDP per capita rose from $3445 to $8422 ($5459 to $10147). For Indonesia,  the corresponding figures between 1997 and 2004 are $1184 and $1188 (due to the Asian Financial Crisis, this was actually $2572 and $3005 based on PPP). And for the Philippines the figures are $533 and $2011 in 1986 and 2010 ($1376 and $3726).

These four cases of Asian democratic transitions coinciding with rising wealth suggest a large GDP (PPP) per capita window between $1376 and $8985 when democratization began, with an even wider window of between $3005 and $16078 when it ended. China’s per capita GDP last year was $3735, and when adjusted for purchasing power parity it was $6778. Based on these trends, China’s democratization would be expected to begin between 1995 and 2012 and end after some time after 2003, possibly well after. Going by the nominal GDP per capita data, the window would be expected to be between $533 and $7521 for the start of democratization, and between $1188 and $13,376 for its end. For China, this suggests democratization beginning between 1995 and 2016 and concluding after 2003.

So going by the optimistic view of China’s political development, one should already expect to see signs of democratization, with 2012-2016 being towards the later end. This suggests one of three possibilities. The first is that there will be greater political liberalization in China over the coming decade. The second is that China bucks the trend and manages to stave off democratic reforms for one of a number of reasons (good governance, more repressive measures, etc.). The third possibility is that the entire framework of democracy arising out of prosperity is flawed, and that economically liberal and wealthy societies can persist, even if uncomfortably, within authoritarian political structures. In that case, the democratization of China is by no means a foregone conclusion.

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