In China's case, the delay of political reform carries huge social and economic costs. In the West, most people are aware of the political consequences of this delay. These include persecution of dissidents, practitioners of various religions, and labor activists. Unfortunately, the West's focus on political rights may have obscured a more pressing problem that affects hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese people: the lack of protection for their economic and social rights in a transition economy under an autocratic government.
It is important to raise this issue because we must remember that a transition economy is no level playing field and an autocratic government can create serious distortions in the marketplace through the abuse of its political power. In China, government officials can use their power to gain important advantages over ordinary citizens. For example, officials can grant business licenses and sweetheart real estate deals to their family members or friends. They can also place their relatives in high-paying jobs. This phenomenon of "marketization of power" is economically inefficient and socially unjust. At the same time, because only a relatively small proportion of the population can gain such favors, the vast majority of the Chinese people -- workers and farmers -- are denied an equitable share of the fruits of economic reform. The real situation is even worse because workers and peasants are now bearing most of the costs of reform, such as rising unemployment and declining rural income.
Cumulatively, such economic and social costs are reflected in the rising inequality in China. According to various estimates, China today is perhaps the most unequal society in East Asia and has experienced the most rapid increase in income inequality in history. As a result, those who are losing ground in economic reform are now falling into poverty. The Chinese government admits that there are 30 million poor people in urban areas today -- a decade ago, the concept of "urban poor" did not exist.
There is a clear nexus between delayed political opening and rising inequality in China. A closed political system allows a small group of elites, as in Suharto's Indonesia, to maximize their personal gains by using the power of the state. On the other hand, disenfranchised social groups are denied the means to protect their social and economic interests. Inevitably, this will lead to social and economic polarization, even political radicalism, in China.
China's leaders are certainly aware of the rising social and economic costs of the transition to a market economy. They are now openly talking about protecting "weak social groups." But it seems that they do not understand the political roots of the problem: as long as these groups, such as workers and farmers, are excluded from the political process, they will lack the means to defend their legitimate rights. To reduce rising tensions between the Chinese state and society, the ruling regime must open up the political process and create legitimate channels through which the interests of these groups can be articulated and protected.
Otherwise, instead of a political evolution similar to Taiwan or Korea, China could find itself heading down the path of Indonesia.
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Professor at Northeastern University specializing in Chinese politics and a research associate at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, she is the author most recently of Inklings of Democracy in China (2002).
When reforms began in 1979, few could have imagined that in the next 24 years, the Chinese people could have gone so far along the developmental road or gained as many rights as they have: a developing civil society, greater freedom of speech, greater access to information, mass media with a much broader range of opinion and critique, the proliferation of associations and interest groups, village elections, legal reforms, and even limited political reform. Yet there is a tendency among my colleagues and other observers to take this progress for granted, noting it more in passing than in awe, and ignoring the fact that it has all occurred in the context of a remarkably stable environment.
Considering how rapidly China is growing and the sometimes wrenching impact this has had on society, keeping China stable has been no small accomplishment. Moreover, the Chinese people's fear of instability, as Anne Thurston has noted in her opening remarks, is real. In their view, the good life will vanish if instability returns, and they have no assurances from anyone that democracy won't be destabilizing. Indeed, they are well aware of the upheaval caused by the introduction of democracy to formerly communist countries.
Can we say, then, that the reforms that made these accomplishments possible are simply the price the government has paid, part of the contract, for keeping the Chinese people out of politics? If so, it seems to have been as good a deal for the people as it has been for the party-state: they've acquired more rights, and those that have not suffered from the downside of a free market have attained a higher standard of living. So I'm not certain that more democracy is a priority for most Chinese people right now.
I also don't think democracy has the moral clarity it once had. I wonder, then, why we are trying to evaluate China in terms of democracy, as if it is a moral absolute. Further, as Orville Schell says in his opening remarks, "When it comes to political reform, we do not yet know how to quantify progress, except in quotients of stability." Maybe we don't need to quantify it, but I've become increasingly convinced that we should in any event adopt a different way of thinking about China that moves us beyond the political labels of "democratic" or "authoritarian." We might, for example, try to think about China's government in terms of adjectives like "effective" or "ineffective," "competent" or "incompetent," "forward looking" or "resistant to change," "pragmatic" or "ideological," or "more" or "less." All such description should be related to evaluating the ability and willingness of the government to provide a decent life to its citizens, which is presumably the goal of a democracy anyway.
If we used fair and consistent standards for evaluating not just China, but all countries, we would have a more objective basis for understanding how well the Chinese party-state is doing, and we could compare that to the performance of other states, regardless of their form of government. The human development index (HDI) developed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) evaluates China, as it does all countries, by "the overall achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development -- longevity, knowledge and a decent standard of living." The HDI is not predicated on either communist, anticommunist, religious, or liberal democratic values, and it is certainly not shaped by standards that are either Western or Chinese. Instead, it attempts to measure the quality of life within each country. As such, it is at least partly a measure of the willingness and ability of a country's government, regardless of its form, to address the needs and development of its citizens. If we were to use this sort of standard for evaluating China, it would remove our thinking from the political arena, where the standards are unclear, and give us more objective standards for evaluation.
Finally, one of the problems with using the word "democracy" is that it means so many different things to different people, and the aspect of democracy that matters to one sector of Chinese people, such as intellectuals, may be of little interest to other sectors, such as rural migrants to China's cities, entrepreneurs, or farmers. Even among country people (i.e., peasants), there are different views of the value of important aspects of democracy, like elections. From my research on Chinese village elections, I have learned that there is no single predictable embrace of democracy. In some villages people are hugely pleased that they can elect their village leaders; in others, they think roads would do more good. Some view elections as having brought in a better leadership; others say they elected the same leaders that they have had since the 1960s because they were the best people then, and they are the best now. I think we need to repeatedly ask, what aspects of democracy and for which people in China?
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Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and author of The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994), A Chinese Odyssey (1991), and most recently, Muddling Toward Democracy: Political Change in Grassroots China (1998).
I am struck, in reading my colleagues' opening comments, by how similar our perspectives are. We agree that significant political change in China is not likely in the short term but both necessary and inevitable in the long run. The major questions are whether that change will be peaceful or violent and what sequence of events might prompt political change. Much seems to hinge on the capacity of the Communist Party to respond to rising demands.
I will address only one of many issues -- the changing nature of the Party's legitimacy.
I have been struck in China both that the Party continues to be more legitimate than we might expect and that the nature of Chinese legitimacy is greatly different from our own. I was first aware of this in 1989, in the aftermath of Tiananmen. After the first night of bloody violence, only a minimum of overt coercion was required for most people to submit to the Party's rule. As friends described the situation, usually one or two people were being arrested in most places of work. But those being arrested had not been the most active participants in the demonstrations. Since virtually everyone had participated in the demonstrations, the fact that the less active could be arrested meant that anyone could be arrested. The widespread fear of arrest led to quick compliance with Party dictates.
But people also generally treated the Party as legitimate. I interpreted this as a persistence of traditional forms of legitimacy. In imperial China, citizens had the right to rebel against unjust rule. But legitimacy, the mandate of heaven, could be known only in victory. The winning side was ipso facto legitimate. What this suggested, then, was that so long as the Party remained capable of suppressing dissent, it would in some sense remain legitimate.
Today, the Party seems embarked on a major effort at transforming its basis of legitimacy. The introduction of competitive elections at the village level is one such example. The Party is using those elections to recruit popular village leaders into its ranks. Jiang Zemin's new theory of the "three represents" is another example. I initially did not take the "three represents" seriously. My unscientific sampling of taxi drivers, street vendors, hotel attendants, and restaurant staff has yet to reveal a single person able to recite the substance of the theory. But most of my academic Chinese friends are taking the theory -- that the Party represents the most advanced productive forces (the entrepreneurs and capitalists), the most advanced cultural forces (the intellectuals), and the great masses of the Chinese people (the workers and peasants) -- seriously indeed. The three represents essentially turns Maoism on its head, redefining the class basis of the Party's support. Mao's revolution, after all, aimed to overthrow the capitalists; and intellectuals were at the lowest rung of the hierarchy of status. Jiang's theory incorporates into the Party the very people Mao was trying to destroy.
Some of my Chinese friends tell me that the greater inclusiveness of the three represents will ultimately result in reforms within the Party. If it is true, they argue, that economic development and the rise of a middle class ultimately lead to demands for democratization, then the Party is admitting the very people most likely to make such demands. And while intellectuals may be politically quiescent now, they have always been at the forefront of democratic movements and can be expected to be the vanguard of the next wave of democratic demands. By welcoming into the Party those people with the greatest proclivity toward democracy, the likelihood is that the Party will ultimately both be willing to reform itself from within and be responsive to grassroots demands for democratization. And such responsiveness by the Party suggests that a democratic transition could be peaceful.
True or false? The cynics counter by arguing that the three represents is an effort to co-opt would-be reformers. Party membership, they say, is in itself corrupting. Faced with a choice between democratization or giving up power, the nascent political reformers will capitulate to power. And what about the workers and peasants, for whom the revolution was fought? How well does the Party represent them? The Party of today plays only lip service to the traditional bases of its support.
Whether the cynics or the idealists are right remains to be seen. But how the Party changes with the implementation of the three represents is likely to be a significant determinant in whether China's political transition is peaceful or violent.
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Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of nine books about China, including Virtual Tibet (2000), Mandate of Heaven (1994), and Discos and Democracy (1988).
In response to the opening remarks:
On Minxin Pei: I agree that the best hope is slow, piecemeal reform. For instance, the slow inculcation of legal norms and systems is encouraging, although as Pei points out, "a rigid enclosed system will inevitably clash with an increasingly open, pluralist, and assertive civil society." And then what? Call in the army? This is exactly why it would behoove even the Chinese Communist Party to reform politically and democratize, even at the risk of disenfranchising their own right to rule unilaterally. At least then, if breakdown arrives, they would not end up as the sole lightning rod, which is what will now currently happen.
Pei hopes that the prospect of piecemeal change will be given a chance to succeed by the continued buoyancy of the economy. To date, China has managed to prevail with high growth rates. But as we all know, even China's economy will inevitably end up being cyclical. (Remember the bitter end of the so-called "long boom" in the U.S. and all those advocates who claimed that the economic terms of the game had somehow fundamentally been changed by the IT revolution?) It is a thin reed, indeed, to put the weight of democratization on the continuing robustness of the economy. Indeed, often when one needs rights, courts, constitutions, due process, habeas corpus, etc., is precisely when the economy fails and there is social disorder.
In any event, one is still left to wonder: What is the plan? Where is China trying to get in its piecemeal reforms? It's certainly not clear to me.
On Anne Thurston: Ah yes! Alas, democracy has become linked in the minds of many Chinese with the fear of chaos. But while democracy is not, admittedly, the neatest way of governing, it is also worth remembering that it works rather well in many countries, and that in significant measure its compromised reputation in China is due to how it has been depicted in the official media, a reminder that the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party still does exercise considerable control of, and have a considerable effect on, how the Chinese people view things.
True, no doubt economic development can aid and abet the growth of democratic governance. But the question of when is the right time to begin the conscious implementation of an overt process of democratization remains. Does any country in the developing world imagine itself as wealthy enough to begin embarking on an explicitly democratic path? Perhaps they should all just surrender to Leninism until they can elevate their levels of economic development? But what, then, is the right time to have the ribbon-cutting ceremony and declare the moment "ripe" for democracy to be the official position of the CCP? Will that moment ever come?
Finally, in response to Thurston's observation that "the development of a democratic political culture still has a long way to go," I would agree. The question then is, how does it get such a democratic political culture growing? Is this culture something that just happens like the seasons changing (with a little help from markets)? Or is it something that needs to be more deliberate and conscious?
In my view, democracy is difficult to effect during the best of times, with wise leaders, open media, and a good constitution. Does that mean that in the absence of these things (and a well-developed economy), a country should be excused from the process by its people, who in any event have not truly been asked of their views, much less educated to have well-informed views?
On Suzanne Ogden: Ogden asks, does democratization "have less to do with conscious choices than socio-economic forces?" I would put it this way: Socioeconomic forces can have much to do with the advancement of democracy, but they are insufficient in themselves. The Third Reich and Fascist Italy had well developed economies. India and Costa Rica have developed democracies but have not had such well-developed economies.
I am just a little wary of the old saw that open markets lead ipso facto to open societies, as if we lived in some Hegelian world where everything is moving ineluctably toward the Supreme Ultimate. Open markets are certainly a lever in opening up spaces in China, but I also hasten to add that building democracy takes education, practice, real input from the the mass media, hard work by civil society, and most importantly, a government that is itself an expression of and an outward exponent of democracy. In other words, democracy takes leadership, not just acquiescence to natural or market forces.
Ogden is right that Chinese culture is not inherently democratic. This has long been a problem. That is why one fears that if China's natural cultural predilections merge with capitalism, it could create an unholy alliance. This is precisely why democratic political (and cultural) leadership is crucial. And it is exactly this that we miss in China. Moreover, we see few early prospects of gaining such leadership any time soon -- although one is always prepared to be surpised.
Finally, Ogden posits that "no factors can guarantee democratization" in China and that "the growth of fully autonomous associations and institutions and the development of broader political rights may turn out to be far less important to China's democratic development than whether the Chinese state can develop stability." Perhaps. But, isn't that the argument in every authoritarian government? Stability, which is always in the eye of the beholder (or the leadership) is famously elusive, and all too often provides a pretext for projecting real democratization into the future, toward some almost mythic time when things are, at last, truly "stable."
Perhaps the only factor that can bring a real modicum of hope to the democratization process is a little more democratization. Simply put, there can be no democratization without democratization.
As to the question of degree, or whether China would be best suited by "democracy with Chinese characteristics" or some tailor-made kind of democracy that has yet to be hybridized, that is quite another question. What is worth noting, however, is that any destination implies -- even requires -- a conscious goal. This is what is missing in China. The place is going like a runaway steed, but no one quite knows where it is going. Moreover, virtually no one within China itself has the will, the rights, or platform to acknowledge the fact that this is something of a headless-horseman.
Stability as a means to democracy sounds reasonable enough. However, stability has an all too easy way of becoming a goal in itself, especially when economic criteria are the terms of the judgement.