Beijing through Rose-Colored Glasses: Why Democracy Cannot Tame China

Beijing wants to become a preeminent power.  Pluralism will change nothing.

There is an increasing drumbeat for pushing a democratic project in China to fend off its inevitable aggressive authoritarian ambitions. There is little doubt that China will wish to become a preeminent power in its own hemisphere. But the argument that creating a pluralistic, democratic system in China will sideline a coming clash between Washington and Beijing is overly optimistic. Certainly it is true that China and the United States will be competitors, even rivals, not only because one is an established power and the other a rising power, but also because their political systems embody very different ideologies. American concepts of democracy pose an existential threat to the Communist regime; Successful Chinese growth under an authoritarian system is a threat to American leadership and exceptionalism.

Recently, Aaron Friedberg masterfully combined, in a way that is quite unusual, realist and non-realist components in an argument whose crescendo is that “it is likely that a more democratic China would ultimately create a more peaceful, less war-prone environment in Asia.” It would also, of course, simultaneously remove the threat to the American sense of ideological supremacy. Thus “in the long run, the United States can learn to live with a democratic China as the dominant power in East Asia, much as Great Britain came to accept America as the preponderant power in the Western Hemisphere.” But, “until that day, Washington and Beijing are going to remain locked in an increasingly intense struggle for mastery in Asia.”

This is an argument that has been made before. It’s one of the rosy forecasts that Jim Mann has called a “soothing scenario.” And it is fraught with uncertainty. It is, in fact, highly unlikely that China will become a truly democratic political system, and moreover a democratizing Middle Kingdom may well be overwhelmed by the nationalistic sentiments that are part of China’s contemporary political culture, and that the present Communist government has deliberately cultivated. Even if we arbitrarily and optimistically assign a 50 percent probability to each of these outcomes, over the next decade or so, that means that the chances of a Chinese regime that is both democratic and cooperative would be no more than 25 percent. Those are not the best of odds. Nor are these odds of true democratization within our ability to change.

Given this, it is far more important to ask the fundamental question of how the United States can manage China’s rise through its own behavior. Which leads us to some of the policy implications that those others who cling to the democratization-as-solution mantra might be better served by drawing.

Rather than simply hoping for democratization, I would look toward creating greater economic interdependence between China, the United States and the rest of Asia. The Communist party is dependent on economic growth for legitimacy—and that growth presently depends very much on exports, and exports depend very much on foreign investment. The policy of economic rebalancing that Beijing is attempting may change those ratios somewhat, making the Chinese economy increasingly dependent on domestic consumption and less reliant on exports, and exports more contingent on Chinese firms and less on foreign invested ones. But as the economy matures, there will also be increasing interest in outbound Chinese foreign investment, and that will increase Beijing’s interdependence with the rest of the world—albeit in a different form. This creates an environment in which American can promote interdependence based on reciprocity. Actively welcome Chinese investment in the United States, as long as comparable opportunities are available for American (and other foreign) firms in China. Chinese investment in an advanced economy like that of the United States will mean that Chinese goods sold stateside will be increasingly produced by American—not Chinese—workers. Concomitantly, it will give those Chinese firms with investments in the United States a stake in stable relations between Washington and Beijing.

Second, continue to welcome China’s growing presence within existing international institutions—like the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations—and its efforts to create new organizations to meet unfilled needs—like the SCO, the ASEAN+3 and the East Asian Summit—as long as the United States is also given an appropriate role. There is a huge difference between a rising power that wants more say within the existing international system and a rising power that wants to promote fundamental changes to that system. It will be key to ensure that those institutions—both old and new—are robust enough to simultaneously impose some constraints on Chinese behavior and reassure Beijing that its rise is being accommodated.