April 14, 2010


China Will Get Democracy: Expect it by 2030, says Chatham House senior fellow Kerry Brown. But in the short-term, things might get a little rough. (The Diplomat, 4/08/10)

China’s next generation of leaders are to take power in 2012. Are there any indications yet of what we might be able to expect from this next generation given some of the names that have been floated for key positions, especially in terms of political reform?

Basically, whether they like it or not, they have to make some big decisions about the governance of China. They just want to continue making China a strong, rich country, where the Communist Party has a monopoly on power. But I think they’re going to have to quickly decide, for, example, about what to do about an independent judiciary. The influence of politics on the courts is still very great in China—there are anything from 3,000 to 300,000 civil society groups in China. Civil society is flourishing, and yet they have no legal basis and they aren’t properly protected by law.

China also has to decide what to do about political opposition. At the moment, it can repress or co-opt. Eighty percent of the million people who have succeeded in village elections over the last 20 years who were not Party members have then become Party members. So the Party has been fairly good at co-opting people and people that are not co-optable, it then represses. But, I don’t think that’s sustainable and I don’t see why China is any different to any other transitional economy.

By 2020, it will be a middle-income country with a per capita GDP of probably around $11,000. At that time things usually start happening—society becomes much more contentious; you have to deal with greater inequalities, which are already very large in China; there are issues with a fragmented economy and fragmented social development across the country; issues of unity and social cohesiveness; issues of allowing information flows for proper economic development. If it can’t have a structure to do this with some sort of stability and sustainability, then it’s going to be a problem, not just for China, but the world.

I think this is going to happen more quickly because I think even at the moment there are signs of rising social tensions within China. There were 12 million petitions to the central government in 2008 because people were dissatisfied with the decisions of local courts; problems of labour unrest. And then there the problems of ‘mass incidents’—there were maybe 90,000 of these in 2009. This is a lot of social discontent and I think the Communist Party has two options. One is to tough it out and continue to repress and hope eventually things will work out. The other is to reform and deal with the courts, civil society and political opposition in a more sustainable way.

The drawback for the Party is that any of this will mean the monopoly of power it has will go and it will just have to deal with that. I don’t think it can tough it out. If tries, it may well end in terrible bloodshed, which has been the historical template for dynastic change in China.

The only thing novel about China as an ostensible world power is that no other has begun its decline from such a low level of advancement.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 14, 2010 3:49 PM
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