HONOLULU (KHNL) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said recently that democracy in his country was still a hundred years away. Not good news for those who had hoped China's rapid capitalist economic development would lead to a democratic state. Not surprising news, however, to political scientist Teresa Wright.
The Cal State Long Beach professor says, "...as China's economic reform and growth have progressed, public interest in promoting liberal democracy seems to have diminished." Interestingly enough, this is despite the fact that, "in recent years, hundreds of thousands (of Chinese) have participated in tens of thousands of yearly protests."
Wright writes in the latest edition of the East-West Center publication AsiaPacific Issues, titled Disincentives for Democratic Change in China, that these "mass disturbances indicate some degree of unhappiness with the present political system," to be sure. But she adds, "Almost none of the protestors have challenged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule." Instead Wright notes anger arising from the inequities spawned by the rapid economic growth and the policies and practices that encouraged and allowed it has generally been directed at local employers and officials, not central authorities and CCP leaders in Beijing.
She says that rather than criticizing the political system in China from a Western, liberal perspective, "most have voiced their criticisms from the left, calling on ruling elites to live up to their socialist claims to legitimacy." This is especially true of the group that has suffered the most, and protested the most, in China's reform period: laid-off state-owned enterprise workers.
And that gets to the crux of the reason why democracy has not taken root in China, despite the rise of capitalism. "The demands of disgruntled citizens display the legacy of socialist institutions and beliefs," a product of the Chinese experience of the past almost sixty years, Wright points out. "They (still) express support for socialist economic and social guarantees and protections, and seem willing to support authoritarian political rulers that provide these benefits." She adds that they "have nowhere to turn but the communist party which continues to pay lip service to their needs."
The desire for protection and the fear of change may explain the motivation of the economic "losers" in China, but what of the new upwardly mobile "winners," those who have benefited from China's capitalistic course?
They, too, show little desire for dramatic change toward a liberal democracy. "The economic winners have an interest in maintaining the authoritarian political status quo that has served them well," according to Wright. They, too, see the central government as a source of protection and as the facilitator of their prosperity.
That both the "losers" and "winners" are looking toward the CCP for protection also says a lot about the party in Beijing and its policies.
Wright points out that the CCP has, so far, been able to "walk a tightrope very successfully." It has welcomed newly prosperous private entrepreneurs into the fold as party members, fostering among them a belief that they have a stake in the system, and that their economic prosperity depends upon maintaining the status quo. At the same time Party leaders have been able to placate laid-off state-owned enterprise workers with programs and promises of payments that are unavailable to other jobless citizens.
This Big Tent approach has also played well with other important sectors of society. Workers in enterprises funded in part by foreign investment, privately-owned Chinese companies and migrant workers have turned to Beijing to protect their recent economic gains ... even if that is a relative term. College-educated urbanites and intellectuals, major proponents of political reform in the post-Mao era, post-1989 have been claiming seats within the Big Tent, as well, trading calls for political change for the promise of increased prosperity.
Wright says, however, "the current incentive structure may prove to be both transitory and fragile ... the economic circumstances that create the present interest in maintaining the political status quo may shift."
Most obviously, Wright postulates, "an economic crisis that undercuts the economic well-being of the 'winners' of economic reform could lead to increased political dissatisfaction." Yet even absent a dramatic economic crisis, Wright notes that China's "phenomenal nine-to-ten percent growth rates" are unlikely to persist "in perpetuity." "When that growth finally falters," Wright states, "so too may the current disincentives for democratic change."
Teresa Wright is a professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach and a former visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Honolulu. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Single copies of AsiaPacific Issues: Disincentives for Democratic Change in China may be downloaded for free from the East-West Center's website at www.EastWestCenter.org. Copies are also available for $2.50 plus shipping by contacting the East-West Center Publication Sales Office at 1601 East-West Road, Honolulu, Hawaii 96848-1601 or via email at ewcbooks@EastWestCenter.org.