Minxin Pei Responds
The question whether a democratized China would be a more peaceful great power has been raised before. In the current issue of The National Interest, professor Aaron Friedberg’s essay discusses this question so exhaustively that there is very little to add. However, an analysis of how domestic politics would change in China if it became a democracy reveals why a Beijing ruled by the people would not be a threat to its neighbors or the West.
One of the most important changes democratization would bring to China is a new civil-military relationship. This issue has not received adequate attention in discussions about how civilian control of the military influences a country’s external behavior. In the case of China, it is a critical factor. As we all know, at the moment, the Chinese military is under the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is not a national army, which would be politically neutral and loyal to the Chinese state not to a particular political party. The mission statement of the People’s Liberation Army is revealing: its top priority is to defend the political monopoly of the CCP. Understandably, the CCP has made it abundantly clear that it will not allow the military to become a national army. If China became democratic, the Chinese armed forces would be much less subject to political manipulation and more loyal to national interests. This fundamental change alone would reduce the likelihood of conflict between China and its neighbors.
A democratic China would also have real political checks and balances. Opposition parties and civil society in a liberal democracy play an important part in constraining the freedom of action of the ruling party in national-security policy. At the moment, the CCP’s national-security policy is completely unchallenged. But that would change if China had well-organized opposition parties and strong nongovernmental organizations that could force the leadership to justify and seek public support for its agenda.
The military establishment itself would be placed under greater scrutiny in a competitive political system as well. Opposition parties and NGOs would raise questions about defense expenditures and force the military to be more transparent regarding its doctrine and capabilities.