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The Short March: China's Road to Democracy

The Short March: China's Road to Democracy

Mini Teaser: When will China become a democracy? The answer is around the year 2015.

by Author(s): Henry S. Rowen

When will China become a democracy? The answer is around the year 2015. Some might think such a prediction foolhardy but it is based on developments on several fronts, ones inadequately reported in the American media. There are, indeed, unmistakable signs of important positive changes in China. These changes are undoubtedly related to China's steady and impressive economic growth, which in turn fits the pattern of the way in which freedom has grown in Asia and elsewhere in the world.

Bad But Getting Better

According to the latest survey of political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House, China's freedom rating is, in effect, zero. At first glance it is easy to see why. The country remains a one-party state under the rule of the Communist Party; the Justice Ministry admits to having 2,700 "counter-revolutionaries" in prison (many of them actually political dissidents and labor and human rights activists); officials admit to over 2,000 summary executions in 1994; people are often detained for long periods without trial; and many people, especially peasants, are ill-treated by local authorities.

On the other hand, things have improved. China has come far since the disastrous Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, and the lunatic Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and early 1970s. Higher incomes have given people more personal space, agents of the state have less control over citizens' lives, and the typical Chinese is freer to move about the country. The coercive one-child policy is being flouted in the countryside, causing authorities to adopt economic incentives in an effort to gain compliance.

The progress that has been made, and the prospect for more of the same, can be considered under three headings: the growth of grassroots democracy; the struggle toward a rule of law; and the liberalizing of the mass media.

Grassroots Democracy

Reforms in village elections came out of the disasters of collectivized agriculture. Faced with starvation in the late 1970s, peasants in Anhui province disbanded local communes and returned to family plots. Thus began a process of de-collectivization and transition to a market economy, which is now far advanced.
The dissolution of the commune system left in place no institution capable of addressing infrastructure needs, schooling, or any of the other functions of local government. In Guangxi province, villagers responded by organizing committees to maintain social order, mediate disputes, and manage public utilities and welfare. The political vacuum created by de-collectivization led to the amendment of the Chinese constitution in 1982 to provide for village government. A crucial decision concerned the role of the Communist Party in the new arrangement. Was the Party to appoint village officials? Were provincial and town officials to appoint them? Instead of adopting either of these arrangements, in 1987 the central government decided that they would be chosen by elections, and these began in 1988. The political crackdown after the Tiananmen massacre immediately raised questions about the future of this institution, but it has survived.

Village government now consists of a Village Committee functioning as the executive, and a Representative Assembly as a form of legislature. By the early 1990s, 90 percent of village committees had been elected, but the process has been ragged. Elections were unfamiliar phenomena and procedures were understandably irregular. Many people did not take them seriously, as past elections had been only a formality. At first most presumed that upper levels of the government and Party would rig the outcomes, and in fact local Party cadres have continued to resist relinquishing their privileges, and non-Party members have often been subjected to various forms of discrimination. Some representative assemblies dominated by members of the old establishment still hold that Party membership is the main qualification for candidacy. Foreign observers have witnessed instances of probable ballot fraud, and it is safe to assume that in elections without such observers the incidence of fraud is higher. Although the law provides for a secret ballot, provisions for privacy in voting are inadequate.
Despite all these drawbacks, substantial progress has been made. Fujian province is perhaps the most advanced in this process, with four rounds of elections behind it. (It has the advantage of being on the coast and benefits from contact with the Taiwanese.) In 1993, the Fujian People's Congress passed an election law, the first provincial legislature to do so. Among other things it changed the basis of voting from one vote per household to one vote per person. In the 1991 elections, 49 percent of the winners were non-Party members; however, in 1995, the Washington Post reported that although 40 percent of the candidates who won were not members of the Communist Party, half of them joined later.

Observers of the 1994 elections in Fujian reported, not surprisingly, that Party members were worried about their diminishing control of the various village economies, and expressed these concerns through active lobbying efforts. But these were not always successful in preventing competition. It is up to local officials to decide if an election will be competitive, as distinct from voters facing a "choice" of only one candidate. When there is no competition the only recourse for those who object is abstention. If a significant number do abstain the election is perceived as a failure, and this constitutes a form of pressure for future competition.

In Nanping City in Fujian province, more than thirty peasants from Tiantou village wrote an open letter to election organizers claiming that, "In the past few years, the work style and morality of the village officials have become intolerable and the situation is really serious." They proposed the election of one Chen Jinman and four other lesser local luminaries to the village committee. When the five nominees posted a three-year work plan at the gate of the village committee office, some officials complained that this was going too fast toward democracy. Nonetheless, the nominees' management plan was advertised, a competitive election was held, and the five were elected.

For all the defects of the electoral process, the principle of selecting village leaders by competitive election rather than appointment from above is established, as is the principle of fixed terms of office. Local government is becoming more transparent, and information on village affairs, including finances and officials' salaries, is being posted in public. More elections are being contested. "Class struggle" is no longer employed in dealing with political and social conflicts, nor are those who stand against Party members automatically denounced as "enemies of the people."

It is likely that this process will continue, with election procedures steadily becoming more comprehensive, standardized, and transparent. Growing numbers of peasants are learning about legal procedures, and may be expected to use the law to protect their rights. The Communist Party will face more competition from businessmen, clan organizations, and others expressing a variety of interests. What was begun at the grassroots has already started to influence behavior higher up in the system, too. Recently, several provincial deputy governors who were not on the official slate have been appointed, and they have been accepted by Beijing; and some prominent members of the Party, scheduled for election to the National People's Congress, have lost.

A Rule of Law

The rule of law was never established in modern China, and under Communist rule law has been until recently a political and administrative instrument of the Party dictatorship.

As late as 1980 there were only three thousand lawyers in a country of over one billion people. Since then there has been more than a twentyfold increase in the number of legal professionals, and Chinese courts now hear over three million cases a year. But this is still seen to be inadequate: In June 1992 President Jiang Zemin said that China needs 300,000 lawyers, and the current goal is to have 150,000 by the year 2000. That about equals the combined number of lawyers in Germany, France, Benelux, and Denmark--though China has nine times as many people.

This expansion comes in response to a growing demand for the rule of law. Specifically, the Chinese people are demanding that the government observe its own stated rules. Values consistent with Western ideals of equality, justice, and legality--as well as with ancient Chinese ideals--are being expressed at all levels of society, and are finding their way into legislation.

Chinese officials are explicit in acknowledging that China needs a more developed legal system, because a market economy must be governed by law. Foreign firms in particular require consistency and transparency in the laws to which they must adhere, and these are often lacking. In Shanghai, a principal center of foreign business activity,

"There is no distinction between official policy and officials' references. . . . Lawyers report that when they contact the tax bureau to ask about changes in the law . . . they are advised to consult the bureau's consulting company (for a substantial fee). . . . In the absence of laws, there are rules and then clarifications. And because these often appear contradictory to confused foreign businessmen, it seems that there are no rules at all, just the arbitrary interpretation or whim of the official asked."

There is good reason to question China's ability to sustain rapid growth in the absence of stable and fairly enforced rules that foreign investors find acceptable. (This applies less, however, to overseas Chinese, who have a comparative advantage in a game without formal rules, because of their contacts and skill in personal dealings.)

The growing weakness of the state also elicits demands for law and order. This is evident in the general frustration with massive corruption at all levels: illegal businesses run by government agencies, the theft of government assets, and evasion of price controls and taxes. At the same time, the weakening power of the state makes it more difficult to achieve an effective judicial system.

Among the many shortcomings of the legal system, Anthony Dicks asserts that the most fundamental is the fact that "the Communist Party is outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts", despite a 1982 constitution that says that "the political parties . . . must abide by the Constitution and the law", and that "no organization or individual is privileged to be beyond the Constitution or the law."

There are several other serious problems, including slack enforcement of decisions in civil proceedings. In practice, enterprises run by the military are not penalized and large and medium sized state owned enterprises are often protected by local officials, which amounts to being outside the law. Nor are courts themselves exempt from the endemic corruption; lawyers bribe judges, who often make it known to those appearing before them that they are interested in stepping down soon from the bench to enter private practice.

The criminal process is the least reformed of all, and it still serves functions established by a totalitarian regime. Pre-trial detention often exceeds the statutory three months, and arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture continue. Police can impose low-level punishments for minor offenses and may also sentence offenders to "labor re-education" of up to three years for offenses that are defined loosely and in moralistic language.

However, in Beijing, the National People's Congress is rewriting the criminal laws to state that defendants shall not be presumed guilty, that they shall have lawyers, and that the police shall no longer be able to hold them without charge. Doubtless, for some time to come these new laws will often be observed in the breach, but their passage is an indicator of the growing demand for democratic procedures.

The level of competency and professionalism of lawyers in China is low. According to Alford and Lubman, few lawyers (and even fewer members of the judiciary) have university law degrees, and many of those who do studied law for a centrally planned economy, much of which has been superseded. They are better suited to be state legal workers than autonomous lawyers. There is not yet a widely shared understanding of the distinction between public and private interests, or of how these are to be reconciled. Tripling the number of lawyers by the year 2000 will not by itself solve these problems.

For all these many shortcomings, notes Alford, Chinese lawyers in some instances "are now able to represent in an unprecedentedly vigorous manner clients whose interests may not be wholly synonymous with the state's." Arguably, the Supreme People's Court has begun to make law through its interpretations and decisions, a role that is contrary to communist dogma, which allows no place for an independent institution. This process seems likely to continue.
Among academics, and increasingly in the public security bureaucracy, there are calls for change--at least for rationalization, if not for liberalization. According to Lubman, "as institutions of the Party-state erode, legal rules and institutions, however incomplete and tentative by Western standards, may grow more able to exercise the functions of Western private law in the emerging sectors of the economy outside the economic plan."

Another indication of a shift from an ad hoc to a rule-based system is a recent change in China's tax system. In 1994, separate national and local taxes and tax services were established. Such a separation, it is important to note, is an essential feature of a federal system of government--fiscal federalism--as distinct from one that is merely administratively decentralized. While the latter can be easily reversed, fiscal federalism is more likely to endure, becoming de facto constitutional. Within the American constitutional structure, fiscal federalism has been the source of enormous economic and political benefits. It is, of course, far too early to predict similar benefits for China from an initiative that is still in its infancy, but it is another bit of evidence for the emergence of a system based on rules.

The demands of a market economy require such rules, as well as transparency and fairness--all attributes directly at odds with a Leninist ruling party. A choice must be made and it is evident that, slowly and irregularly, the market path is being chosen.

Media Self-Liberalization

As described by Minxin Pei, the liberalization of the Chinese economy after 1979 had the unintended, and to the regime unwelcome, effect of leading to the self-liberalization of the mass media. This came about through the combined effects of market forces, foreign influences, and changes in technology. Together with a more active and critical Chinese intelligentsia, these factors have produced a remarkable increase in freedom of information. The process was led by book publishing and was followed by journals and newspapers. The electronic media lagged, evincing little liberalization in the 1980s, but it too is following the general trend in the 1990s. The net effect of all this has been significant. For example, a history of the Cultural Revolution was published despite government efforts to ban it; a book attacking the Chinese character (The Ugly Chinese) became a bestseller; stories about official corruption began appearing; and works opposing the Three Gorges Dam and favoring deeper respect for the rule of law were published.

The shift to the market was the major cause of this Chinese glasnost. The market increased the channels of production and distribution of materials because there was money to be made by entrepreneurs; at the same time, the government was losing money in its many state-owned publications and outlets. As it cut back on state subsidies for publication, many journals and newspapers were forced into the market. In 1984 the government permitted collective private publishing houses (in effect partnerships) to function. This soon led entrepreneurs to adopt many of the functions of the former state publishing houses: finding authors, translators, paper, and printers. In Xinhua's bookstores in 1979, the huge state media empire held 95 percent of the market; by 1988, its share had shrunk to one-third. In Beijing in 1992 there were about two thousand kiosks, and for many of them, profits came largely from the sale of illicit publications.
The newspaper business has evinced a similar trend: non-Party papers have gained market share at the expense of Party publications. According to Pei, 1,008 newspapers were founded between 1980 and 1985, only 103 of which were Party controlled. As Party papers lost market share they reduced their propaganda content in order to compete. Nonetheless, hampered as they still were by censorship, circulation and advertising decreased.

Initially, the government was better able to manage the electronic and film media. This was partly because the costs of entry were much higher than for print media. But the market eventually made its power known. The government's censored materials were unpopular and falling demand led to mounting losses. Unprofitable government operations were spun off to private operators. Government stations such as Dongfang TV in Shanghai introduced live coverage of breaking stories, talk shows, call-in programs, 24-hour broadcasting, and celebrity interviews of liberal intellectuals whom the hardliners had silenced after 1989. Callers complained about the quality of government services, putting pressure on them to improve. Taken together, these developments have made censorship increasingly impractical. Hence something very basic has changed: The state is losing control of information.

The film business went through a similar evolution. Dreary and unpopular state productions resulted in revenue losses. Already in the 1980s, the government allowed foreign films and TV programs to enter China and in 1992 it ended the state monopoly on film distribution. The result: more private activity, leading to greater competition, which in turn has led to greater variety and higher quality.

The Chinese government's decision to seek foreign investment in order to acquire advanced technology and expertise reinforced these domestic changes. This meant admitting many more foreign businessmen, sponsoring more technological and business exchanges, and creating more electronic links to the rest of the world. Western newspapers found their way to major tourist hotels (and beyond) and access to CNN was approved in the mid-1980s.

Both were cut off after the Tiananmen massacre and restrictions on foreign investment in media were imposed--all to little effect on the flow of information. Working against the regime's efforts to maintain control were growing incomes combined with advances in technology. Televisions, radios, cassette players, and VCRs proliferated widely. In 1985, the government allowed local TV stations and educational and research institutions to set up their own satellite ground stations; by 1990 more than sixteen thousand had been established, creating a system too large for the authorities to monitor effectively. In the 1990s Chinese manufacturers began to make home satellite dishes. The national authorities decreed prohibition but failed to enforce it; by the early 1990s an estimated 4.5 million were operational. Broadcasts from Hong Kong greatly increased their penetration of the market in south China, to the discomfiture of the censors in Beijing. Also, by 1991 more than eighty thousand firms, institutions, and government units were equipped with fax machines, with a projected market increase of ten thousand a year through the decade.

The Chinese government has not pursued a consistent policy line on freedom of information. Between 1978 and 1993 there were waves of liberalization with intervening periods of repression. These oscillations have resulted from shifts among factions in Beijing, developments in the market, and in response to some unpleasant events. Even the crackdown after the Tiananmen massacre did not prevent further liberalization in late 1992, after Deng's visit to south China. The message is clear: Once a totalitarian regime ventures down the path of market reforms, it loses control of its information organs. In China this process was hastened by the gradual loss of control over many other aspects of political life.

Clearly, there is a widening zone of tolerance within which journalists and editors operate. Because those in the media have a financial stake in not being shut down, they stay clear of the (ill-defined) far edge of the zone; in short, there is a good deal of self-censorship and government monitoring. Unsurprisingly, too, a great deal of what is published freely is commercial in character--instructions on how to get rich, for example--and politically unthreatening. What Ramon Myers of the Hoover Institution calls the "ideological marketplace" of politics is still outside the zone of tolerance. Dissidents who oppose the government do not have access to the media because they are considered by editors to be too hot to handle, and they must resort to distributing leaflets and to hunger strikes. But with the exception of some journalists accused of selling state secrets to Hong Kong, there have been no criminal proceedings against journalists for several years.

There will continue to be waves of progress and regression, no doubt, but the underlying tide is raising the overall level of freedom of information. This, taken together with the strengthened rule of law and democracy at the grassroots, shows clearly that the long march away from the totalitarian character of the Communist Party is well underway.

China is No Different

These changes at the grassroots in China are similar to those that took place in Taiwan at a comparable stage of development. China's per capita GDP is now about $2,500. When Taiwan reached that level in the early 1970s, the Kuomintang Party (KMT) was firmly in charge but changing its ways, much as the Chinese Communist Party is today. Local elections had been held every three years after 1950; over time local bosses had become more responsive to the popular mood, and non-KMT individuals had become active in local politics. In 1973, Taiwan's Freedom House democracy score was 25 (on a scale of 0 to 100). Then its political liberalization began to increase significantly (as is happening in China today)--although at first no organized opposition was allowed (again, as in China). The first open, free election for parliament occurred in 1992, and in March of this year Taiwan held its first presidential election--also deemed free and fair.

The path of political liberalization in South Korea was different but the end point was similar. After the coup that brought Park Chung Hee to power in 1961, elections were held but results were determined by the ruling party. The country's 1974 freedom rating was 33. Political change came rapidly during the mid-1980s and by 1995 its rating had jumped to 84. South Korea was becoming increasingly wealthy as these changes were taking place.

The political evolution of Taiwan and South Korea are but two examples of a wider phenomenon. The worldwide norm, first clearly established by Seymour Martin Lipset, is "the richer the country the freer" (the exception being those enriched through oil, such as Saudi Arabia and Brunei). The curve marked Worldwide Freedom-Income Regression in the figure below shows the relationship between per capita income and Freedom House's 1995 ratings for all countries, indicating an average. The correlation is not perfect in East Asia or anywhere else; Singapore, for example, has a low freedom rating for its income level and the Philippines a high one. But the overall fit is good and it shows that the wealth-democracy connection is not a European artifact. This bears on the assertion by various Asian authorities and intellectuals, mostly in Singapore and Malaysia, that Asian democracy is different from its Western cousin. Perhaps it is in some ways, but the reality is that, although the East Asian income-freedom pattern shown in the figure is a bit lower than the worldwide average, this region is like others in that the wealthier a country, the more (Western-style) freedoms its people enjoy.

The prospects for Chinese liberalization thus rest, above all, on continued rapid economic progress. Since 1979, China has grown annually at over 5 percent per capita (at international prices).10 If it continues on this trajectory--by no means a certainty--China's per capita GDP will be between $7,000 and $8,000 (in 1995 dollars) by the year 2015. This figure is very significant. Several scholars have suggested that the transition to stable democracy correlates with mean incomes between $5,000 and $6,000, and becomes impregnable at the $7,000 level. There is a compelling logic behind the statistical relationship. Growing wealth is accompanied by increased education, the building of business and government institutions with some autonomy, and the formation of attitudes that enable democratic governments to survive when they have a chance at power. Spain, Portugal, Chile, and Argentina, in addition to Taiwan and South Korea, all made the transition to democracy while they were within this income range.

No one can know precisely how democracy in China will evolve, but its record over the past fifteen years and the experience of other countries in East Asia suggest more competition in local and provincial politics, ultimately reaching the National Congress--although organized political opposition on the national level might be banned for a long time. Freedom of information will expand further and the rule of law will become ever stronger. This process is unlikely to be smooth and there may well be setbacks, as in the regime's reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. To the extent that China's current leaders anticipate a political evolution, as they must if they are realistic, they probably prefer the Singapore model, although Taiwan's seems more in keeping with the Chinese character--and the political history of Taiwan is well known to elites across the strait.

What could go wrong? Although there is a consensus on Deng Xiaoping's dictum, "To get rich is glorious", sustained rapid growth is not assured. Lagging growth in the poor interior provinces might impede political evolution of the country, and an ongoing conflict with Taiwan could become an obstacle. Or, after all, China might just be different--but in light of the evidence reported above, that is not the way to bet.

This is the Deal

The key inference for everyone is patience: Only twenty-odd years separate us from 2015, and the advent of Chinese democracy promises abatement of several current problems. For the people of Taiwan, to be a province of a prospering China--or perhaps a member of a Chinese confederation--in which governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are popularly elected and the rights of their citizens are protected by law, should be a far more attractive prospect than joining today's China. But the period between now and 2015 (or whatever the precise year) will be volatile, because Beijing will not give up on the goal of unification. And it will become militarily more powerful as time passes. Taiwan needs to keep its powder dry and behave prudently.

For the United States there are two main implications. The first is that it is a good thing that the Chinese become rich, for it will benefit the American economy in the process. The second, and more important, reason is that a richer China will become more democratic. This will not necessarily make it easier to deal with, but experience has shown that democracies are less dangerous interlocutors for other democracies than are dictatorships. Washington should therefore stop holding trade relations hostage to an array of current political disputes. The United States should instead make most-favored nation status for China permanent, and impose no extra obstacles to its admission to the World Trade Organization. Our economic interests need to be pressed on the many trade issues in contention, but it is much better to address them in the WTO forum than in the current, highly politicized bilateral tit-for-tat manner in which we have been engaged in recent years.

If trade sanctions are ruled out-of-bounds in dealing with non-trade matters, how are we to dissuade China from exporting weapons and delivery systems capable of mass destruction? This is a question the Clinton administration has failed adequately to address, and it is a failure that is likely to encourage similar transfers in the future. One answer lies in our taking actions in the security domain rather than in economics. There is much in the way of arms for defense that we have not provided to Taiwan or to other countries in the region that worry about China that we might supply.

The second main policy implication for us is to defend strongly Taiwan's de facto independence. We have an interest in a peaceful East Asia, and we share more values with a democratic Taiwan today than we did with the authoritarian one of days gone by. If Beijing resumes military pressures against the island, we should not only supply more advanced arms to Taiwan but make it clear to China that it will confront American military power if it crosses our red line. We need also to make it clear to Taipei that a condition of our support is that it abjure de jure independence, for that would escalate the confrontation with Beijing, something that we and the Taiwanese should both want to avoid. This merely restates long-standing American policy that there is only one China but that we resist any attempt to unify by force. The difference now is that political evolution in China can be expected to ease the problem.

It follows from this analysis that we should not assume that China will inevitably become a threat to U.S. interests. We have a common interest with China in seeing its people prosper, in peace, in dealing with environmental problems, and in coping with the dangers associated with the spread of weapons capable of mass destruction. This common agenda would be better advanced if China were a member of the various organizations that make the rules on such matters. Nonetheless, American criticism of China's human rights violations should and will continue, but it should not be linked to trade issues. Our criticisms will have increasing resonance inside a China with a better educated and informed population that has access to greatly improved telecommunications, one that is growing freer year by year.

Put another way, the deal--better left tacit than made explicit--is this: Beijing bets on the many benefits of getting rich, including military power and peaceful reconciliation with Taipei. Taipei bets that a democratic China will emerge and holds off declaring itself independent. Washington bets that a rich China will become democratic and that the Taiwan issue will be peacefully settled in the context of a moderated Chinese foreign policy.

Americans sustained the Cold War with the Soviet Union for forty-five years until victory came. The prospect of a twenty-year (more or less) effort to help the Chinese people to become free--while helping Taiwan to retain its freedoms--is a much less daunting prospect. There may be trouble with China during its passage to democracy--or even after--but the odds should go down as it becomes more prosperous. We should do nothing to interfere with that process.

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