Should the world root for democracy in China?

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Several observers, such as Gideon Rachman and Aaron Friedberg, suggest in their new books (reviewed below) that democratization in China would reduce or even solve the geopolitical tensions that China's rise creates in Asia. While democracy in China may be desirable in principle, assuming that it'll reduce Chinese ambitions or facilitate US-China ties is, most likely, a fallacy.

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Recent elections for Hong Kong's Legislative Council have yet again made headlines across the world, since a few seats were won by people who want Hong Kong to be more independent from China. Beijing has long eyed Hong Kong with suspicion. The 2014 wave of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong marked one of the most difficult tests of Chinese rule since Tiananmen. 25 years ago, soldiers in Beijing killed hundreds of students, workers and professionals seeking greater democracy and limits on corruption. Since then, the Communist Party has successfully contained pro-democracy movements, largely through arguing that its monopoly on power is necessary to assure economic growth. This points to an interesting question: Should the world hope for democracy in China, or even try to encourage democratization there? What would this mean for the future of democracy? 

In a thoughtful article ("5 Ways China Could Become a Democracy"), Minxin Pei, an influential Chinese writer based in the United States, lists a series of possibilities that would lead China to democracy. (He calls them "Happy Ending", "Gorby comes to China", "Tianamen redux", "Financial Meltdown" and "Environmental Collapse".) 

He concludes by writing that

few have seriously thought about the probability and the various plausible scenarios of a regime transition in China. As we go through the likely causes and scenarios of such a transition, it should become blindingly clear that we need to start thinking about both the unthinkable and the inevitable.

In an effort to contextualize the discussion about democracy on a global scale, Kevin Narizny, a Professor of International Relations at LeHigh University, published "Anglo-American Primacy and the Global Spread of Democracy: An International Genealogy", has written a controversial article in which he seeks to answer a simple yet intriguing question: Why has democracy, among all possible regime types, become the prevailing form of government in the world today? Democracy's triumph was by no means obvious: The author rightly points out that as recently as the early 1940s, an impartial observer might have concluded that democracy was doomed to obsolescence. After all, the modern era has produced a wide range of seemingly successful, stable alternatives, including constitutional monarchy, fascism, communism, and bureaucratic authoritarianism.

Narizny argues that the spread of democracy has been endogenous to the game of great power politics: For the past three centuries, Great Britain and the United States have stood in succession at the apex of the international hierarchy of power. They have been on the winning side of every systemic conflict in this period, from the War of the Spanish Succession to the World Wars to the Cold War. As a result, they have been able to influence the political and economic development of states around the world, thus serving as the decisive pro-democratic force. The rise of democracy in the modern state system can thus, according to the author, be traced to a single point of origin, a founding state, with unique “genetic” characteristics. Without Great Britain first and the United States later, Narizny writes, democracy would most likely be non-existent: Europe would be ruled by Imperial or Nazi Germany, and Asia by an authoritarian Japan:

England was central to this process because, at the time of the Glorious Revolution, it was on the verge of becoming the most powerful state in the international system. It combined parliamentary exceptionalism with unrivaled power, allowing it to sow the seeds of democracy throughout the world. The first generation of its descendants consists of its former colonies, the most important of which have been the United States and India; the second generation includes the clients and defeated adversaries of the United States, such as Germany and Japan; and the third generation consists of the myriad states subject to the conditionalities of international organizations, like the EU and World Bank, that are controlled by members of the British lineage. Much of this argument can be conceptualized in terms of path dependence, in that a critical juncture sets in motion a sequence of events with effects that cumulate over time.

Neither Great Britain nor the United States, Narizny points out, promoted democracy for selfless reasons. Democracies, after all, tend to be more reliable partners and are more likely than authoritarian states to open their markets to trade and foreign investment. The spread of democracy thus happened to be aligned with both countries' hegemonic strategies and served as a tool of economic expansion. Of course, democracy promotion tends to be opportunistic, not principled. States engage in it only where the expected costs are low: in territories already under their control, such as colonies and defeated adversaries; through asymmetric instruments of diplomatic pressure, such as aid conditionality; or in an international vacuum of power, as often exists after major wars.

The author thus argues that modernization is an insufficient condition for the global spread of democracy. Democracy needs active help by big powers to prosper and survive. Great Britain and the United States contributed to the global spread of democracy not through their example, but their actions. Narizny also rejects the argument that authoritarian states always fall behind their democratic competitors, and that the triumph of democracy is therefore merely a matter of time: "Democracy might have an advantage, but not enough of one to have spread via natural selection."

What truly matters for the future of democracy is therefore whether the hegemon promotes it or not. Whether small states are democratic or not hardly matters because their influence is limited. The global environment thus must be benign enough for democracies to prosper and survive. In the past, most democratic transitions have not been long-lived. Between 1809 and 1988, there were 122 transitions to democracy, among which only forty-four survived, uninterrupted, to the present. Of the seventy-eight that did not survive, forty-four lasted less than a decade, and an additional twenty-two lasted less than two decades. The success of democracy thus will continue only as long as there remains a democratic great power at the top of the international hierarchy.

Many, particularly in the Global South, will disagree with Narizny's argument. The United States may have been essential in preventing Imperial and Nazi Germany from ruling Europe and Japan from ruling Asia, yet today it does little to promote democracy. Quite to the contrary, in many regions of the world, it has undermined the consolidation of democracy. In Guatemala, for example, USAID funded a large democracy program in the late 1960s and early 1970s to train rural leaders, so as to give rural communities more say in their own development. At the same time, the CIA were actively supporting the Guatemalan military’s counterinsurgency campaign against all political opposition. More than 750 of the rural leaders who took part in the USAID program were murdered by the U.S. backed-Guatemalan military. These episodes influence until today the way people in the Global South think about U.S. attempts to promote democracy abroad. While the EU certainly may have helped democratization in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War, it is entirely unclear whether the IMF and the World Bank have strengthened or weakened democracy over the past decades.

Yet if, for one moment, we accept his premises, the rise of China is likely to have profound consequences for the future of democracy. If only mildly optimist predictions regarding China's economic growth over the next decades are correct, the Chinese economy will overtake that of the United States soon, contributing to the rise of a more multipolar global order in which the United States will no longer be as influential as it is today, particularly in regions where democracy is not consolidated, such as in Africa. In the second half of the 21st century, China will have long overtaken the US economy, and may also come to challenge the United States' political supremacy.

If democracy promoters around the world accepted Narizny's argument, they should discuss ceasing their efforts to promote democracy in small nations and focus all their time and energy on democratizing China. Realist scholars will belittle this project as wishful thinking and as a dangerous enterprise, as a political rupture in China could severely affect the global economy. But U.S. and European civil society are already heavily engaged in promoting democracy in China, often secretly. Democracy promoters in China are right to point out that the stronger China becomes economically, the harder it will be to influence its political regime.

Yet despite this argument, realist considerations will keep the United States and Europe making democracy promotion in China a priority. After all, strong economic ties to China are simply too important to risk a messy political transition that will endanger political stability. Others will rightly point out that a democratic China could adopt a far more nationalistic and aggressive foreign policy, actively confronting the United States' military presence in Asia. While the thought of a democratic China seems appealing at first sight, many international observers and policy makers will secretly hope that little changes in China.

Read also:

The end of the emerging world?

Book review: “The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China” by David J. Silbey

Should Brazil have an embassy in North Korea?

Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP