China's political future


Where is China headed? Nobody knows, least of all the Chinese. Their culture has many features which are hard to reconcile with a democratic society, at least on the Western model. The Confucian ideal is enlightened autocracy. Open confrontation is offensive and independent centers of power unacceptable. Initially, a Chinese democracy will probably follow the Hong Kong or the Singapore rather than the Taiwan model.

The burden of history

China’s history is interspersed by violent outbreaks of popular discontent which time and again have precipitated regime shifts. Here an old French adage applies. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Genuine change requires time and patience, headlong upheavals tend to repeat or even magnify past errors in new guises. Mao was the latest exponent of this revolutionary reflex. His flagrant abuses and the attendant economic collapse provided the impulse for a gradual system shift initiated in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping (1902–97).

Today China is communist only in name, if that, and it has no ambitions to disseminate either Marxism, Maoism or socialism beyond its borders. The history of China indicates that the present regime will transform into a dynasty, headed by a nominally omnipotent Emperor/party chief, surrounded by a host of bureaucrats. As far as the power structure is capable of delivering enough material goods and goodies it is sitting pretty. Otherwise, the people start to grumble and the dynasty is deemed to have forfeited its heavenly mandate. The reforms tend to come too late and, if anything, hasten the revolutionary upheaval.

This scenario has been repeated in China over and over again, but times have now changed. There is no return from the market-oriented reforms which inevitably will transform the societal structure. Education is surging at all levels and the Chinese are open to foreign influences as never before. Foreign investment, domestic savings, industrial production and foreign trade have been growing in tandem, and the annual GNP-increase has for several years been spectacular, holding steady at around ten percent – with no sign of abating. China is sitting on a massive currency surplus and Chinese companies and sovereign funds are investing heavily abroad.

Chinese culture has many features which are hard to reconcile with a democratic society, at least on the Western model. Respect for authority is deeply rooted and individual rights are basically subordinated to societal and collective interests, which all too often mean the interests of the ruling bureaucracy. Truth and liberty do not have the same intrinsic value as in Christian cultures but have habitually given way to the realities of power play. The rulers could usually carry on, untroubled by embarrassing revelations.

The Confucian ideal is enlightened autocracy. Open confrontation is offensive and independent centers of power unacceptable. Initially a Chinese democracy will probably follow the Hong Kong or the Singapore rather than the Taiwan model.

A super-power in waiting

China with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants is already a major power – the only one-party state in the world of any distinction. The country is also the strongest contender for a super-power status besides the United States, which is producing frowns in Washington. A lot depends on the future development in China; its neighbors are already sensing that China is flexing its muscles.

Nuclear weapons and missile technology are indispensable trappings for a major power; neither is conventional weaponry neglected. Taiwan is a sore point which comes in handy in regulating political tensions abroad. The relations with Japan are equally useful in manipulating domestic opinion. The demarcation line between Japan and China in the sea north of Taiwan is contested and the quarrel about the oil- and gas-rich area may still get ugly. The tussle for the potential oil finds around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is a long-running show with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia as the main opponents. China has lately modified its stance towards the neighboring countries and the situation seems to be under control – as long as it suits China.

The economy is racing ahead but difficulties are accumulating. The income differences are increasing and the countryside with its 800 million inhabitants is left behind. The peasants do not even own their land and the unemployed are threatening to deluge the cities, while working conditions and environmental control are in bad straits. The infrastructure is bursting at the seams and the state owned banks are not yet fully consolidated. Worst of all is the rising wave of corruption and administrative arbitrariness; the judiciary is still under development, to say the least. To top it all, the demographic situation is worrisome as a consequence of the successful one child policy.

China will, for sure, sort out the acute problems but setbacks are unavoidable if the administration is unwilling or unable to come to grips with the basic problems. Serious economic reverses are dangerous for a regime when its legitimacy is entirely built on increasing prosperity; internal feuding among the power brokers would add fuel to the fire. In such a case, the leaders can easily resort to nationalistic rants and posturing. China has distanced itself from the mendacity and cruelty of Maoism but a clear repudiation of the past is not on the political agenda. Decision making is dominated by economic pragmatism and a rather moderate nationalism. Even so, the interests of the ruling party elite always come first, though confrontation with an ever more articulate public opinion may deliver a few surprises in the not too distant future.

The fog of future

With China on board the wave of democratization would be well-nigh unstoppable. But where is China headed? Nobody knows, least of all the Chinese. Will the expanding middle class allow itself to be manipulated or will it press for influence through elected bodies? The Chinese leaders are already cautiously experimenting with local elections and media relaxation. Properly timed reforms could release the pressure and avoid a destructive explosion.

A benign development is looking increasingly probable as living standards are improving and the middle class is becoming more assertive. A pragmatic leadership of the communist party may be capable of accepting democratization by stealth, just as they did in introducing the market economy. The other alternative is social commotion with a very uncertain outcome.

The surrounding world can contribute to Chinese democracy by supporting all aspects of the mutual plus-sum game. Free trade and open information stimulates interaction and understanding as do contacts established in science, art and sport. China’s inferiority complex is a liability; self-respect and respect for other nations goes hand in hand. The successful organization of the Olympic Games 2008 will hopefully consolidate Chinese self-esteem.

Otherwise not much can be done beyond China’s borders to promote democracy. Nationalist posturing could be ignored but open aggression must be countered. There is a risk that the legitimate ambitions of a major power transform into an arrogant foreign policy. The surrounding world must make clear that this route is blocked. The cooperation of the democratic countries may still be severely tested. The European Union has followed the example of the United States and maintained the weapon embargo against China as a protest against the violations of human rights. So far, so good.

China is making a strong comeback from its ideological bankruptcy, but civic morality is yet to recover. The following episode speaks for itself (personal communication). A small group of activists decided to support local factory workers who suffered from disabling silicosis. They got hold of a lawyer who managed to extract a sizable compensation from the employer. Afterwards the workers declined to pay the lawyer – at least in Finland this would be past all sense of shame. Let us hope that the compassionate response to the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake marks a turning point in civic moral awareness in China.