Kuora: China’s eventual transition into democracy

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s recent answers originally posted to Quora on March 26, 2015.

Is there any possibility of a smooth and peaceful transition of China into democracy without running into social chaos and economic meltdown, like that in the Arab Spring?

I’m assuming that by “democracy” you mean a multi-party pluralistic state with universal adult suffrage, and I’m also assuming that by “Arab Spring-style chaos” you mean more toward the Libya/Syria end of the spectrum than the rather less messy Tunisian outcome.

I would say that it’s not just a possibility, it’s a likelihood — given enough time. There’s an awful lot of desire to avoid massive social unrest, and barring an unforeseen catastrophic economic debacle, few people in China — ordinary people I’m talking, let alone elites — would side with a truly radical movement that would seek to unseat the Chinese Communist Party through even street protests/civil disobedience. Most people are to an extent critical of the Party, but when push comes to shove, are for reform and not revolution.

Talk even to Chinese people who are quite critical of the CCP and you’ll find that many of them still hold to three beliefs that push them toward reform rather than revolution: First, they do fear chaos, and many are quite invested in stability; second, even if they dislike the Party, they profess to love China, and want to see China wealthy, powerful, and not subject to bullying at the hands of their erstwhile “imperialist oppressors,” whether Euro-American or East Asian; and third, they often hold a rather pessimistic view of the laobaixing, the ordinary folks, who they regard as lacking in sophistication, culture, and judgment.

Why do Chinese people like their government?

I’m confident that as the last generations to have experienced firsthand the horrors of the Cultural Revolution pass away or enter their senescence, and as the last generation to have a strong memory of a China that was impoverished and weak is gone from the scene, there will be a lot that will become politically possible. I don’t think most people in China believe that the Chinese are, now and forever, somehow culturally incapable of political pluralism. Even while political theorists in the West discard “development theory” and the idea that growing wealth tends to lead to demands for rule of law and political participation, ironically I think most people in China — or the educated people, at least — still buy into the basic idea, and see this period of authoritarianism much in the same way as they do the periods of strongman rule in South Korea, in Singapore, or (most tellingly) Taiwan. Urbanization, growing wealth, better education, and greater exposure to the broader world will raise the “character” (素质 sùzhi) of Chinese people and they’ll be better able to make responsible political decisions — more “deserving” of democracy.

Again, this is barring any (of a huge number of possible) unforeseen circumstance. And this is not to suggest that I see the Communist Party simply giving up the ghost, or even becoming merely one of a number of democratic parties. I think instead we’ll see something closer to what prevailed in Japan after the defeat in 1945, where the Liberal Democratic Party held sway for three decades without any significant national-level challenge. The Communist Party may well be going by another name by this time (some variation of “Social Democratic,” I imagine) but I think it will probably hold sway for decades after the fundamental constitutional changes that would make China at least notionally multi-party took place.

Kuora is a weekly column.