The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China has selected the country’s next leaders. The leadership transition, however, will be formalized only with the consent of the National People’s Congress (NPC)—a puppet parliament with highly predictable voting patterns. Officially the highest state body in China, the NPC is mostly a showcase of democratic mimicry.
This imitation of democracy implies broader questions about democracy in China. Will China democratize? Can China democratize? But perhaps we are we asking the wrong question. What if democracy in China does not bring the desired outcomes?
A burgeoning middle class and a more active civil society may be the seeds of future change. In early 2012, semi-free elections in Wukan demonstrated that local-level Chinese governments can be receptive to civil protests. But semi-free elections are the only thing resembling democracy in China to date.
So why would the United States welcome a democratic China? The most obvious answer is that a democratically governed China would share mutual interests with the United States and the international community, including human rights and the adherence to the rule of law.
As with other peoples, the Chinese want to live in a free society and choose their own government. The immediate impact of democracy in China would presumably terminate the instances of unjustly imprisoned dissidents. However, the past (e.g. Rwanda) shows that such humanitarian objectives are not Washington’s primary interest.
Beyond civil society concerns, economic and strategic interests play a bigger role in shaping White House policies toward China. Issues such as the growing U.S. trade deficit with China, the artificially undervalued Chinese yuan and Beijing’s increasing military budget cause the most anxiety in Washington.
U.S. policy toward China must avoid the dangers of an all-inclusive policy, assuming that the democratization of China is the universal remedy.
In the economic sphere, a democratic China might be a more accessible trade partner and comply with its World Trade Organization obligations. Beijing would stop manipulating its currency and entertain U.S. advice to boost domestic consumption. With stout anti-piracy laws and intellectual property protection, U.S. exports to China would thrive and the trade deficit may even turn into a surplus.
Building on the democratic peace theory, Washington can claim that the democratization of China could eliminate the threat of military confrontation. President Obama’s recent “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific would thus not need to be a policy of veiled containment, but rather a policy of bilateral cooperation in the region.
But unfortunately, democracy is not a panacea. In fact, a democratic China may not be much different from today’s China.
Democracies are not always exemplary international actors—take for example the United States. It failed to ratify international agreements such as the Statute of the International Criminal Court or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In fact, Washington has also manipulated with the value of the dollar, though in a more opaque manner than China: the 1985 Plaza Accord was arguably intended to limit growing Japanese imports to the United States. Furthermore, as an assertive actor in world affairs, the United States often circumvents international organizations such as the United Nations when in pursuit of national interests.
Before accepting a democratic China into the international system, it would behoove Washington to soften its superpower mindset toward Beijing. A democratically governed China would likely still have great power ambitions and Beijing could legitimately claim the role of the “second superpower” in the next decade.
Democratization would upgrade China’s political power and credibility in the international community. The United States and the European Union would forego the leverage of confronting China about its policies, as China’s laws would be the result of a popularly elected government.
New problems, which could destabilize democracy, might appear. For example, would Tibet and Xinjiang attempt to breakaway? How would privatization of state firms and redistribution of land proceed? What would North Korea do in the midst of losing its only ally? If Chinese democracy could not meet growth rates of authoritarian China, how would the Chinese public react?
Like Western-style democracies, a democratic China may repudiate its non-interventionist doctrine and be more assertive in pursuit of its interests. How would the United States react to a Chinese “coalition of the willing”? Democratic or not, China would still depend on a growing amount of natural resources and territorial disputes in the South China Sea would continue to disrupt regional security.
A democratic Chinese government would face significant obstacles, some unforeseen, that have toppled regimes or caused civil wars in the past. Indeed, China’s Communist Party claims that political liberalization would lead to “chaos.” At the same time, the party feels compelled to imitate democracy, creating a liberal façade to justify its rule. Whether real or imagined, Chinese democracy may not bring the effects everyone hopes for.
Jan Hornat is a researcher in the Department of American Studies at Charles University in Prague.