Economic Development without Political Liberalization
Will the Chinese Model Prevail over the “Global March of Freedom”?
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President George W. Bush has declared the twenty-first century to be liberty’s century and has made the promotion of democracy abroad the keystone of his administration’s foreign policy. Yet as freedom marches through Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine, China remains unmoved by the current wave of democratization.

Will China’s strategy of combining economic development with political oppression defy the march of freedom touted by the Bush administration? How has the administration integrated China into its promotion of global democracy? What more should the U.S. government do to promote democracy in China? Please join AEI on December 14 for the inaugural session in a series of seminars to discuss the future of democratization in China.

8:45 a.m.
ELLEN BORK, Project for the New American Century
LORNE CRANER, International Republican Institute
YING MA, AEI National Research Initiative
MINXIN PEI, Carnegie Endowment
Event Summary

December 2005

Economic Development without Political Liberalization: Will the Chinese Model Prevail over the "Global March of Freedom"?

President George W. Bush has declared the twenty-first century to be liberty’s century and has made the promotion of democracy abroad the keystone of his administration’s foreign policy. Yet as freedom marches through Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine, China remains unmoved by the current wave of democratization.  Will China’s strategy of combining economic development with political oppression defy the march of freedom touted by the Bush administration? How has the administration integrated China into its promotion of global democracy? What more should the U.S. government do to promote democracy in China? On December 14, AEI hosted a panel on these and other questions in the first event of a lecture series on democratization in China.

Ying Ma

American attempts to promote democratization in China in recent years have been colored by assumptions that appear to be conservative but perhaps are not conservative enough. Essentially, Washington has focused on promoting various liberal institutions and instruments for change with the hope that they will restrain the Chinese state or emerge independently from it. However, much less attention has been paid to the inclinations of the Chinese people themselves.

Washington has repeatedly touted the power of market forces and Western influences as an instrument to bring liberalization to the Chinese people. While the Chinese economy has expanded on an average of 8 to 9 percent GDP growth per year since 2000, the Chinese government has thus far been largely able to restrain corresponding political advances. Second, Washington has emphasized the spread of the rule of law and legal institutions as a democratizing force for China. However, the Chinese government has allowed legal reforms as a way of promoting economic development, not for political change. The Internet is a third instrument that Washington has hoped would bring democracy to China by delivering a massive volume of uncensored information to the people. However, what former President Bill Clinton dubbed as the “harbinger of democracy” has also fallen under Chinese government control.

Each time that Washington has presupposed that something would deliver democracy to China, the Chinese government has responded by holding onto its power. The institutions themselves are not completely useless, however, as much depends upon each state’s willingness to embrace them. Thus, it is simply not enough to rely on the Chinese government or institutions alone to solve problems, especially when the Chinese government does everything it can to promote a “strong China” paradigm among the country’s elite and middle class--a paradigm in which the United States is the biggest enemy. As a result, a majority of Chinese people today hold negative views of the United States and blindly believe Beijing’s calls for the pursuit of Chinese greatness. Thus, public apathy or skepticism for democracy makes a sustainable democratic movement in China all the more difficult.

Ultimately, the key for democratization in China may lie in the empowerment of the few that have clamored for change. Thus, it is important not to forsake a conservative outlook: should the Chinese government choose not to democratize on its own, the Chinese people will bear the responsibility for seeing past their own nationalism and making the necessary sacrifices for freedom and human dignity, not just for wealth and power.

Minxin Pei
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The issue of whether economic development leads to democracy deserves examination, as the debate is not conclusive. Economic development is actually bad for democracy in the short term, but it is good for democracy in the long run. Despite many predictions, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has provided surprisingly resilient to economic reforms. 

There are three sets of benchmarks needed to measure the resilience of a regime. First, are the elites cohesive? At the top level, the CCP is quite unified. Second, do organized opposition groups exist, or does the government have the capacity to control civil society and social instability? The Chinese Communist Party maintains effective control over most aspects that are politically significant in Chinese society. Third, how well is the regime able to deal with and contain crises? Again, the CCP has quite a good capacity to deal with both external and internal crises.

The reasons for the CCP’s resilience must be viewed in a broad context. Some very important fundamentals have worked in the CCP’s favor over the last sixteen years. First, economic growth has been very strong. Second, despite problems with the United States, China has enjoyed a rather benign international environment, which has reduced the international pressure that typically is good for democratic reform. A third factor that has been largely overlooked is that the CCP is also a learning organization that has succeeded in adapting to the socioeconomic developments produced by rapid economic growth.

The Communist Party has adapted in a number of ways. First, it has pursued an effective coalition strategy, forming alliances with three key groups in China: the intelligentsia, private entrepreneurs, and technocratic economic reformers. Second, the government has been very effective in responding to technological and social challenges. Third, China’s use of both carrots and sticks has contributed to its stability. Fourth, China has been very effective at capitalizing on popular sentiments, such as the large pro-stability sentiment that fears the “chaotic” influence of democracy and simply wants to maintain China’s economic progress. Additionally, the nationalistic sentiment has deep social support within China and puts Western reformers in a difficult position.

However, CCP resilience is not going to last. Urbanization, economic shocks, the continued unity of the ruling coalition, internal corruption, and local democracy are all unknowns that could contribute to the CCP’s future demise. 

Lorne Craner
International Republican Institute

Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. government had only one standard for measuring the success of human rights in China--that of getting dissidents out of jail. More recently, while the government has continued its short-term efforts to pursue freedom on an individual level, it also adopted a broader strategy of promoting democracy under the Bush Doctrine. The United States began to build medium- and long-term strategies to advance democracy in China. The medium-term strategy was built around taking advantage of the global standards that have developed over the last sixty years, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Long-term efforts were based upon activities inside China, such as rural advances, legal reform in rural areas, and civil society development.

On medium-term issues, the United States began working closely with multilateral mechanisms, such as the Bern Process, and advocating their engagement in human rights in China. The use of these mechanisms has the potential to move beyond the individual achievement of human rights to a broader application to large groups of people. The long-term efforts to advance and catalyze broader reforms underway in China also deserve attention. These are Chinese inventions, not Western imports--although pursued largely for economic reasons, they are nonetheless homegrown. No one expected revolutionary change in China as a result of these reforms, but they have yielded some real and meaningful change.

First, there have been qualitative improvements in a number of building blocks of democratic development: the spread of civil society, the growth of nongovernmental organizations, and limited village elections, for example. Second, the rising rural and urban expectations of accountability, democracy, and individual rights have also contributed to meaningful change. Third, China’s citizens have tasted a measure of freedom and liked it: they want more and are demanding it. As a result, Beijing has two choices: to try to stymie changes and face expanded peasant revolts or to extend reforms to satisfy the people’s need for more freedom. The evidence so far is that Beijing will try to suppress political freedom. However, only by expanding such freedoms can China avoid the kind of unrest that it has seen lately.

More can still be done on the part of the United States. First, any administration can always do a better job in this area. The president could make more pronouncements in favor of democracy. Second, greater coordination on the Bern Process and other multilateral mechanisms is necessary. Finally, in examining the possible recipients of U.S. assistance, the focus has been on the supply side; however, it is important to also look at the demand side, specifically to those Chinese dissidents eager for reform.

One element of China’s response to the greater political openness encouraged by the Bush administration has been to try to suppress expectations heightened by political reform. China is today trying to export the Beijing consensus: that you can have economic development without political change. More and more, the countries with which China finds the most in common are the most repressive on earth. But the Chinese model will not prevail over the global march of freedom, and these efforts by China to obtain lasting friends will not succeed. For its own long-term advantage, China should stop trying to sell the Beijing Consensus and develop a more constructive foreign policy and a better class of friends.

Ellen Bork
Project for the New American Century

Despite many things that the Bush administration has done in support of democratization in China, the Bush Doctrine is not being applied. The Bush Doctrine has three elements: active American leadership in global affairs, promotion of liberal democratic principles, and regime change. One sign that the Bush Doctrine is being applied somewhere is that the president makes a policy change. During his recent trip to Asia, Bush appeared to reverse his previously staunch praise of Taiwan as a democratic example. But despite the symbolism and rhetoric of his recent trip to Asia, President Bush is not applying the Bush Doctrine to China for several reasons.

First, he is not making the establishment of a liberal democracy in China an immediate and top foreign policy priority. Most notably, Bush subordinates political development to economic development. It is as if Bush sees economic development as a precondition for democracy. Second, when Bush talks about Asian democracy, he refers to Taiwan and South Korea’s democratic transitions in the 1980s that were the result of the removal of U.S. government support. This proves that democracy is not an inevitable process triggered by the demands of a middle class, but can be the product of many things. However, China differs enormously from these countries. The relationship with the United States is not as close, but U.S. influence has proved to be very important in nudging China toward a number of good developments.

Actually applying the Bush Doctrine to China would above all require a recognition that the United States should not look to the Communist Party to lead reform in China. The United States needs to take more seriously statements made by the Communist Party that disparage democracy, or else it faces the possibility of strengthening the Chinese regime rather than helping democrats there bring about the real thing. Instead of looking toward the regime for change, the Bush administration needs to align itself with China’s democrats and human rights campaigners, just as it has done in opposing other dictatorships.

Second, the Bush administration also needs to become more comfortable pressuring the regime on certain issues, because without international pressure, China’s political situation will not improve. There is a record of effective pressure being used to bring about changes in China. Third, the United States has other political capital to spend, such as making routine summits more important and coordinating policies with the regional democracies. Ultimately, applying the Bush Doctrine to China would require extensive changes and possibly the abandonment of the “One China” policy altogether.

AEI intern Karla Herdzik prepared this summary.

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