China’s Century

James Sharpe,

Given the seemingly unstoppable rise of China, the succession of Xi Jinping to the position of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party last week has been greeted with immense media interest. And the question that everyone is asking is: When will China’s economic prosperity translate to political change?

It is the contention here that more democracy for China is less likely than many in the west would like to believe. With the example of the Soviet Union, China’s leaders know all too well the dangers of even smallest amount of political liberalisation. In the absence of central political will, it is only the people who can bring about political change, and as people become more and more prosperous within the prevailing political system, that will becomes harder to create.

History, many claim, shows that economic liberty goes hand-in-hand with political liberty. Unfortunately, this is more of a casual relationship than a causal one. Economic success favours the entrenchment of the prevailing political system rather than providing an impetus to democratic rights and freedoms.

In the UK, we had the luxury of having many of the freedoms now being considered fit for China – habeas corpus, freedom of press, elected officials – before we started to witness the great economic rise of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only truly profound changes to our freedoms since then has been the widening of the franchise, but this is a less important change than many suggest: rather than being a revolutionary step, it was simply a series of minor reforms as our understanding of the relationship between wealth and poverty, and men and women changed. Just consider the political consensuses that have been built since the end of World War II: Britain’s economic boom in the 1950s meant that the social democratic reforms introduced by the Attlee government remained with us until economic decline in the 1970s heralded the Thatcher economic revolution. Our political freedoms remained as extensive as ever, and yet economic freedom only came with economic decline.

There is nothing to suggest that China will experience anything different. When critics of the Chinese Communist Party like Ai Weiwei advocate political change, they mean that it should come at the expense of economic success. This is the only way it can happen. Xi Jinping has been groomed for the top office for several years. In itself this is a problem. He may be already comfortable on the world stage, well-known and well-connected, but he is also stuck within the overarching political ideology of the Chinese state. He, just like his fellow members of the ruling body of the Communist Party, knows that he will have no future in a politically liberal China. Why would he want to throw away his source of political success, especially when he has the example Mikhail Gorbachev?

The only way then is for China to experience its own equivalent of the Arab Spring, reawakening the spirit of Tienanmen Square. The only certainty, were this to happen, is that China would experience economic turbulence in the short-term. Why would companies keep their factories in a country rife with civil war when it can simply move to places like India?

International support for internal efforts for political change is by no means certain either. China is not like Libya and Egypt and Syria: it is a world power of the first order and if its current leaders prove as successful at remaining in power as Bashar al-Assad, the world’s democratic countries are not going to be embracing the rebels with as much love as those in the Arab world: if, after all the fighting, al-Assad remains in power, it is unfortunate; if Jinping did, it would be disastrous.

But the possibility of this happening is remote. The main source of discontent at the lack of political freedoms, and the source of leaders for political change, are precisely those sorts of people who took part in the Tienanmen Square protests in 1989; and these are precisely the sorts of people who have prospered from China’s rise over the last decade and now have too much to lose. The Soviet Union fell so quickly not only because it was an illiberal totalitarian state, but because its people were suffering from its economic backwardness. China has only one of these problems. Ironically, it is economic success more than anything else that is now preventing political change.

Perhaps though, this interpretation is both too optimistic and too pessimistic at the same time. It is optimistic in assuming that China’s economic success will continue. Given its exposure to the western markets and increasing competitiveness from places like India for its manufacturing industries, the next decade may well be less successful than the last. If this is the case, and depending on the form it takes, people may well discover they have less to lose than they thought.

Ultimately, people are fickle. Their leaders may have brought about unimaginable economic development, but if they fail to continue to deliver, it is not unforeseeable that the Chinese people will start to look with renewed envy at our political freedoms.


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