One of the largest topics of debate in international relations these days seems to be ‘The Rise of China’. It’s a theme mentioned practically in every news channel you watch, or rooted somewhere in any newspaper you might pick up. That China is a rising star in the world is undeniable; its GDP has risen to be the 2nd largest in the world and it’s taking an increasingly important role in world affairs. Thankfully, China’s leadership appears to have chosen to express this position of power through economic means, including investing in many developing countries around the world, rather than following the US route of attaining military hegemony. China’s growth needn’t be a threat to the West simply because it’s a shock to the status quo – while worries about the effect corrupt deals could have in places such as in Africa, my only real concern would be if China decided to use its position to advocate Communism and authoritarianism outside its borders. Instead, China seems committed to the principles of peace and stability and, after economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, has completely abandoned a Communist economic system while currently maintaining a Communist government (which completely defeats the purpose).
The question on many lips is this: will China, having adopted Western neoliberal ideas of the free market and private enterprise, also follow through and liberalise its political system? The government has proven very successful thus far at warding off domestic unrest, largely I expect because of the country’s incredible economy (we have much to thank China for; its economic success has been praised for keeping the world from complete disaster during the financial meltdowns since 2008). Since the brutal suppression of protests at Tienanmen Square in 1989 there has been no large pro-democracy movements, despite the cases high-profile dissidents such as Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng. Indeed, China’s unprecedented economic success has caused many in the West to consider whether economic growth and democracy must necessarily go hand in hand, as surely China is proof that an authoritarian country can be successful, right?
Yes and no, is my largely unprofessional opinion. History has shown time and time again that economic development in the country – greater infrastructure, a growing middle class, rapid urbanisation – results in unrest within authoritarian countries. An affluent middle class grouped together in urban areas with access to information will soon realise that they have no say in the political process; this is unavoidable. China may effectively sensor the internet but bits and pieces will trickle through. Meanwhile the number of Chinese people taking holidays abroad is skyrocketing, and there’s nothing the government can do to stop them realising how much more political freedom people have elsewhere. Combine these factors with a gradual slowdown of economic growth and I would argue that the government is on a direct collision course with its citizens. There are claims of ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ which, like all claims of national exceptionalism, is merely a vain justification of certain policies. China has a vastly unique and wonderful culture, yes*, but human nature remains the same.
So working on the assumption that a democratic transition is likely, we must now speculate the course this will take. Will we see cautious policies to open up the political system, perhaps similar to what’s happening in neighbouring Burma, or will there be an Arab-Spring style uprising? I’m inclined to predict the first option. In fact, BBC world affairs editor John Simpson recently said that “Leading Chinese dissidents now believe the stage is set for multi-party democracy in maybe 5, 7, 10 years”, describing these dissidents as “surprisingly optimistic“. He is of the view that China’s new leadership is aware that political liberalisation is necessary for continued development and that the real question is how this would be achieved. Don’t confuse this with the idea that its leadership are Liberals – I believe them to be very Conservative – but this is in many ways an issue of pragmatism, not ideology.
Another curious question is, if this remarkable feat is ever achieved, what implications would a democratic China have? While its possible a nationalistic government could be elected that would make the world a much less peaceful place, which would not be unusual for a new democracy, chances are any elected government would be more moderate. I can’t imagine even a democratic China being best buddies with the West – it has too many of its own interests to consider – but there would certainly be the opportunity to improve relations which wouldn’t exist under authoritarianism. A democratic China would possibly be the best thing that could happen for the cause of spreading democracy worldwide; while I don’t expect it would join the West’s desperate fervour to impose democracy upon various countries, it would at least recognise that such a spread would be desirable. For this reason, a democratic China would probably use its considerable influence over North Korea to force reform and openness. Without Chinese support I find it unlikely to think that the Kim regime could survive for long. There would probably also be much good news for human rights in Tibet, even if full independence might initially be off the agenda.
Also, what would a democratic China look like? Would it keep elements of its Communist system or adopt a multi-party system as in Japan, India and South Korea? A close example is the Soviet Union which completely dismantled its Communist style of governance in 1991 and adopted a Western model of governance, though China’s transition would probably not be quite so dramatic and therefore not so extreme. And what would become of the flag? Would it return to the flags of 1912-1949 republic?
Much of this is wild conjecture at best, though I think the odds are in favour of there being some political opening occuring. It would be very nice if this happened as soon as 7 years time, while other commentators have suggested it’s more likely to occur during the 2022-2032 sixth generation of leadership. It’s impossible to tell, though I suspect something has to change during my lifetime. I’m excited to watch and see!
*One I would absolutely love to experience to a greater extent, incidentally.