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Mainstream, VOL LV No 45 New Delhi October 28, 2017

Will China Ever Democratise?

Monday 30 October 2017

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

This article was written before the Communist Party of China’s 19th Congress. But it is being belatedly published in view of the durability of its content.

China’s emergence as a great power is quite established now. It is the world’s most important economic and military power after the US. The Chinese Renminbi is increasingly dominating the international currency market. China is executing some of the most fascinating great power projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet, China has not arrived politically and continues to be an authoritarian country with an aggressive foreign policy. As it prepares for the 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), one wonders if China will ever democratise.

China is not like any other great power. Washington D.C., New York City and Los Angeles serve as fatal attractions as the ‘globo-polis’. Ditto for London and Paris that remain the citadels for education, culture and fashion despite the declining great power status of the UK and France. China, on the other hand, remains a mysterious country primarily due to its authoritarian set-up. Beijing is still a ghost city for outsiders due to its linkage with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and does not attract too many businessmen and tourists from outside China due to its enigmatic air and absence of the due process of law.

Foremost power theorist Joseph Nye Jr laments that China does not score many marks on soft power indices. Prima facie, it is because of absence of liberal democratic values. China still doesn’t have quality educational universities and institutes; no autonomous development of societies away from government control; the culture of dissent and debate is primordial to Chinese political culture; internet is highly regulated; and above all, China shows no inclination of even incremental movement towards a liberal and tolerant political order. As a result, China’s soft power investments like Confucian institutes in many countries have not yielded the desired results.

Following the East Asian model, democracy was expected to follow development in China. However, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 saw thousands of students butchered under the rolling tanks. Top CPC leaders, sympathetic to democratic movement, were purged and imprisoned. Since then, the CPC has not allowed any space for growth of democracy. Instead, the leadership systematically distinguished the Chinese model of development from the East Asian model of development. Over the past three decades, China has evolved a political system called as ‘political meritocracy’by Daniel Bell, the legendary thinker on democracy. Bell argues that the Chinese model of choosing top leadership is morally desirable and politically stable and can help in containing the key flaws of electoral democracy. Against this uncon-vincing hypothesis, Stein Ringen, in his book (The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, 2016), argues that the system of government has been transformed into a regime radically harder and more ideological under Xi Jinping’s leadership and China is less strong economically and more dictatorial politically than the world has wanted to believe. Stein’s hypothesis is more convincing since Xi jinping has purged many opponents under the anti-corruption drive and concen-trated all powers in himself.

The consequences of an authoritarian China are already visible in its foreign policy behaviour and wider international relations. First, the Chinese leadership is promoting nationalism as a diversionary tactics inducing aggressive posture in foreign policy behaviour, particularly towards Japan, and to some extent, the US. One may read the fascinating book by Jessica Chen Weiss (Powerful protests: nationalist protest in China’s foreign relations, 2014) that narrates when, how and why the Chinese leaders have used nationalist protests for foreign policy bargaining purposes. Second, a bucketful of literature hypothesise how democracies shape their foreign policy debates towards rational trajectory. However, the absence of democratic space in China has allowed the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) to virtually dictate the foreign policy. The high level of integration of the PLA with the CPC and of the CPC with the state makes this task rather easier. Third, China’s rise with an authoritarian regime has led to the ‘war with China’ theme propelling the American academic discourse. If only China were a democracy of some kind, the arguments of ‘democratic peace theory (that is, democracies do not fight)’would have diluted the war-mongering theories. Either way, China’s rise as an authoritarian superpower will create another Cold War-type contest for supremacy and bipolar disorder in international relations.

The coming Party Congress is likely to be regressive for the democratic prospects in China. Reformist and anti-Xi factions are not strong enough to do any reverse engineering and induce incremental democratic opening. More military background members are likely to find place in the empowered Politburo. Xi Jinping is also likely to consolidate his grip over power by seeking endorsement for his political philosophy as was done for Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’ theory. While that could put Xi at par with leaders like Mao Ze Dong and Deng Xiaoping, it would also affirm that China’s search for an electoral democracy is going nowhere.

Xi Jinping would stay in power right until 2022. This means that his personal volitions and belief system would continue to shape Chinese foreign policy in an aggressive manner. Dealing with China, therefore, would imply that issues like human rights and cooperative security would be non-negotiable and selective usage of nationalism would continue to guide Chinese foreign policy. Probably, we will have to endure with democracy ‘with Chinese characteristics’ for the near future.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views expressed here are his personal.

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