The vast amounts of literature about the possibilities of China’s one party state transitioning to a democratic government can fill a small living room from the floor to the ceiling. Politicians are still are debating whether or not democratic revolution in China is inevitable. But a question that is just as important but frequently overlooked is the question of whether or not the Chinese people are prepared to operate and maintain a transparent, thriving, democratic government.
The dominant Communist Party’s most influential leaders have publically discussed the Chinese peoples’ desire to govern themselves. On September 23, 2010, Wen Jiabao, China’s Premier, told CNN “The peoples’ wishes for, and needs for, democracy and freedom are irresistible.” But even this bold statement, which is dangerous even coming from a Party member, has been blown off as just talk.
For a long time now, experts on Chinese politics have been saying that Wen Jiabao’s remarks about democracy do not actually mean that the Party will just hand over power to the masses, but rather that political reform will come when the people are ready for it.
This attitude that the Party has toward its lower classes can be seen from the beginning of the Chinese civilization until the present. Up until the 1950s, the Chinese state read and spoke a language not understood by the average worker, and made decisions for the merchants, farmers and scholars without much of their input. Since the birth of the Chinese civilization, the state has always been an authoritarian one.
Then the question becomes: When is a society ready for a democracy? I would argue that the most successful democracies that have peaceful elections, with low levels of corruption, have many economic and societal similarities with China, but are not completely the same.
Until China develops a stable middle class and a functioning rule of law, China will not be ready to establish and maintain a successful democracy. In fact, if one of these criteria is missing, a democracy in China could possibly bear a negative outcome for the Chinese people.
The middle class in China is rapidly growing. Last year China took the number two spot of the largest GDP in the world, right behind the United States. The Chinese economy has been growing between 7-10% a year for almost the past thirty years. And just recently, China became the world’s largest manufacturing nation in the world.
The past few times I was in Beijing, the capital of China, the first thing I always noticed was the fact that there were fewer bikes on the streets than the last time I came. In 2009, Chinese people bought 7 million cars, and in 2010, more than 8 million were sold. From my own perspective, I could easily see bikes and motor-pads almost completely replaced by automobiles within fifteen years. Clearly, a middle class in China is rising, and at an unprecedented rate.
Of course, it is easy to see Prada bags, 2011 Audis, and flashy new skyscrapers when you are in the heart of China’s capital. But if you step outside of the big city, you can find millions of struggling families.
In reality, China’s emerging middle class is still fragile, fickle and its future is uncertain. Even in 2011, the urbanized population is just under 50%. Every year China experiences thousands of protests by people who are demanding higher wages, improved working conditions, and better health benefits. The Chinese government is now attempting to appease the upcoming middle class by providing more government jobs, by utilizing green energy, by building cheaper housing for migrant workers and city dwellers, and by keeping food prices cheap and inflation low. Until the middle class becomes economically stable, a democracy in China would be unstable.
Many studies have demonstrated that having a strong rule of law is closely correlated with having a transparent democracy (there are contradictions to this theory). Currently, the rule of law in China is capricious and still works in favor of the Communist Party’s interests rather than for justice, human rights, and equality. Under Chinese law, people are not judged the same, particularly if someone challenges the authority of the Party.
Although the Chinese constitution claims to protect the rights of its people, it has frequently violated them. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (1982) states in Article 36 that religion in China is protected by the state and that the government may not discriminate against religious practices. However, the Party has frequently bypassed or ignored this article in the constitution and has quelled Tibetan protest, oppressed the religious Uyghurs in Western China, and has silenced many underground Christian churches. The Party typically claims that these groups were undermining its quest to “build a harmonious socialist society.” It is difficult to imagine a functioning substantive and procedural democracy when a group or party is able to control how justice is implemented across the state.
I do recognize that since China’s entrance into the world economy in the 1970s, China has made great strides in establishing a functioning economy, building a middle class, and more or less, beginning to protect certain human rights. But this is not enough to maintain a functioning democracy.
As one can see in India, Venezuela and Japan, without a middle class, one party can dominate politics and prevent other parties from fairly competing for key offices. If China did happen to slide into the status of a democratic nation, it would be a shame if it happened too early. Until the people are able to feed and work for themselves, and fairly fight for basic human rights in the courts, a democracy in China is a pipe dream.