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Prospects for Democracy and Democratization in Chinese Societies

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Keynote Address to
59th Annual Conference of the American Association for Chinese Studies
Walker Institute
University of South Carolina
Columbia, South Carolina
October 21, 2017

I want to thank the Association, and our hosts, the University of South Carolina, and in particular my longtime friend, Professor John Hsieh, for the invitation to give this keynote address.  I will confess that I am a little bit embarrassed by it.  Although I have been studying democracy in Taiwan for two decades, and have been trying to pay attention to political processes and political change in Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China as well, everyone knows—most of all me—that I am not a China specialist.  So what I’ll try to do here is paint some very broad strokes in reflecting on the big question that forms the backdrop for all these kinds of meetings—where is China headed?  Toward democracy, toward deepening autocracy, or toward some hybrid “China model”?  If the latter, will that model not only have unique “Chinese characteristics” but also elude modernization theory, and maybe every other kind of social science theory about where China should be or inevitably will be headed?

Before I address the People’s Republic of China, however, I would first like to briefly address the status and prospects of democracy in the first Chinese society ever to be a democracy, The Republic of China, Taiwan, and the society that would easily and readily have become a democracy if first Britain and then Beijing had allowed it, Hong Kong.

Democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong

Since its first direct presidential election in 1996, Taiwan has had three turnovers in party control of the presidency and a historic realignment in the underlying bases of party domination in the parliament.  Other key challenges of democratic consolidation—such as the institutionalization of civilian control of the military, the reduction of corruption and vote buying, and related to that, the institutionalization of greater judicial and prosecutorial independence, have also been achieved.  There is vigorous competition as well for control of subnational governments at the level of the counties and municipalities.  Civil society has deepened, even if it may have become, in the eyes of some observers, hyperactive.  The media (new and old) are free, even if much of the media are fragmented, sensationalizing, and polarizing.  It is possible to look at Taiwan’s democracy and become dismayed by the intense levels of political polarization, the low levels of trust in political institutions (particularly political parties and parliament, but now even the courts), and become dismayed.  But those who would assert that Taiwan’s democracy is doing poorly should ask, compared to what?  Many if not most of the liberal democracies in wealthy countries (not to mention the illiberal and lower-income countries) are struggling with these problems and worse.  Among the 176 countries rated by Transparency International in its 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, Taiwan is tied for the 31st best score. Its World Bank Governance scores generally place it in the top fifth of all the world’s countries in the quality of governance (and at the 89th percentile in government effectiveness, the 87th percentile in regulatory quality, and the 86th percentile in rule of law). It could do better for sure.  But everything is relative.

There is really only one serious, existential problem facing democracy in Taiwan, and that is Mainland China, which polarizes identity ties and party politics, and poses grave dangers of economic, political and even military security.  Analysts can blame or praise parties and politicians in Taiwan for how deftly and wisely they are balancing competing imperatives, but it is hard to deny this plain obvious fact.

One could make a similar argument for Hong Kong, with the obvious difference that Hong Kong is legally and politically a part of China under the arrangement of “One Country, Two Systems.”  Under the terms of the 1984 Sino-British join declaration, Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy were guaranteed for 50 years beyond the 1997 handover of power.  And under the terms of the Basic Law that came into effect on July 1, 1997, the people of Hong Kong thought they were given a commitment to the eventual achievement of democratic self-governance within the framework of One Country, Two Systems. But Beijing has increasingly behaved as if the Basic Law were “of no practical significance”—to quote the exact language used by the Beijing authorities on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the handover.  Democratic self-government would have to entail not only real political autonomy, but two constitutional changes:  Direct election of the Chief Executive through universal suffrage, without the filter of a Beijing-controlled nominating committee determining, Iranian style, who would be allowed to run, and fully direct election of the Legco, as opposed to the current system where in essence half or close to half of Hong Kong’s legislature (depending on how you count) is elected by small functional constituencies in blatant violation of a core democratic principle that everyone’s vote should count equally.  The people of Hong Kong have been waiting patiently while being told by the Beijing authorities, and the ruling establishment in Hong Kong, that they were not yet “ready” for democracy.  If one looks at Hong Kong’s level of economic development, its quality of governance and civil service administration, and its high levels of popular support and aspiration for democracy, as well as the high level of institutionalization underlying the process of direct elections for the Legco, it is hard to determine when Hong Kong—or really any such society— will be ready for democracy if not now, and frankly, quite some time ago. 

The only way to interpret Beijing’s failure to negotiate in good faith on this question with democratic political forces in Hong Kong, and to allow at least for a reasonable timetable for implementing a fully democratic method for filling legislative and executive power in Hong Kong, is fear.  The Great Fear that is paralyzing politics in Hong Kong is not primarily fear of political instability or economic stagnation.  Hong Kong is already experiencing those trends, precisely as a consequence of the failure of political reform and the cavalier, take-it-or-leave-it attitude of the Beijing authorities who have been stonewalling the reform process.  The Great Fear is not in Hong Kong itself, but rather in Beijing:  That a successful model of a functioning democracy not simply in a Chinese society, but in a Chinese society within the PRC, would cause a contagion on the Mainland, threatening the stubbornly authoritarian hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party.

As a result, freedom and democratic vitality have not only stagnated in Hong Kong, they have been eroding.  On the World Bank’s measure of democratic voice and accountability, Hong Kong has declined from the 70th percentile in 2013 (surely much too high a score for a democracy measure) to the 55th percentile in 2016.  And on the Freedom House 60-point scale of civil liberties, Hong Kong score during this period declined by more than ten percent from 51 to 45.  It will surely decline further this year as the pressure mounts on academic freedom and the rule of law, with several opposition members of the Legco now expelled on the ridiculous grounds that they did not take the oath of office with sufficient sincerity and respect for China.

The data from Freedom House and the World Bank tell a similar story.  Democracy in Taiwan has never been more vibrant.  But democratic practices and freedoms are trending sharply downward in Hong Kong, and any hope of political liberalization in China under Xi Jinping has become a cruel joke.  The PRC remains in essence as authoritarian as it has ever been, with any modest improvements in civic pluralism in one arena being counterbalanced by heightening repression of Internet freedom, intellectual freedom, civil society, and any kind of advocacy or defense for human rights.  This is the politically dark and stagnant reality that has befallen the PRC as the Communist Party now meets in its 19th Congress.

The real question then becomes, what might bring about political change in China?

Will Modernization Bring Democratic Change to China?

Let’s begin with modernization theory. Taiwan’s democratization was certainly consistent with the expectations of modernization theory.  It’s not that there weren’t strong aspirations for freedom and self-determination when Taiwan was a much poorer country. But by the mid-1980s, Taiwan’s rapid economic development and breathtaking rise in educational levels had created a much more complex, pluralistic civil society that was more demanding of freedom.  There had been significant expansion of the middle class and of an independent business class.   And Taiwan’s strong and proliferating social, cultural, economic, and political ties with the United States had generated a dense web of what Levitsky and Way call “linkage and leverage” that significantly raised the costs of outright repression of the opposition.  We should not ignore the sacrifices of brave people in the opposition and civil society who struggled and took risks for democracy, but it was a tide that became increasingly difficult for the authoritarian ruling party, the KMT, to resist.  

Today, the per capita income of the PRC in purchasing power parity dollars is over $16,000 (the World Bank placed it at around $15,500 last year).  When Taiwan began its process of democratization in 1987, its per capita income (in 2016 PPP$) was about $14,000.   So the PRC is already richer, in per capita terms, than Taiwan was when political party opposition was formally legalized.  When Taiwan completed its transition to democracy with the direct, competitive election of the president in 1996, its per capita income was about $22,000 in 2016 PPP$.  China is not there yet, but if it grows at 6 percent annually, it will be as rich in five years as Taiwan was when Lee Teng-hui was elected president in 1996.

My late friend and Hoover Institution economist Harry Rowen fairly accurately predicted twenty years ago that China would sustain a torrid and transformative pace of economic development.  But more boldly, in a famous article in The National Interest in 1996, Rowen predicted that the pace of development would make China a democracy by 2015.  That obviously hasn’t happened.  A decade later (2007), writing in the Journal of Democracy, Rowen qualified but more or less reiterated his earlier prediction.  China, he now anticipated, would “edge into the Partly Free category” of the Freedom House annual ratings by 2015, and it would be a “Free” country by 2025.  With the explosive growth in educational levels, and in the professions—including importantly the legal profession—China would gradually expand freedom until, by 2025, it would be clearly a democracy.

What do the Chinese People Think and Believe?

Well, so far that is not how it has been working out, and there is little evidence that any such democratic change is imminent—nor should we expect any hopeful signs in this direction to come from the 19th Party Congress. But just for the heck of it, let’s think for a moment about an important correlate and in fact I believe causal factor in democratic change—value change.  The Asian Barometer has documented significant change in attitudes and values toward democracy in Taiwan over time.  As modernization was fully in swing in Taiwan in the 1980s and early 90s, support dramatically increased for liberal democratic values. (Or more precisely, rejection of traditional “Asian values,” such as believing that “the government should decide which ideas should be allowed to be discussed in society,” dramatically declined).  The average democratic response in Taiwan across six items like this went from 46% in 1984 to 61% in 1993.  This is in line with the argument of Inglehart and Welzel that economic development brings about the growth of “action resources” like income, education, and occupational skills, and these induce a value transformation toward what they call “self-expression values” that emphasize freedom and the autonomy of the individual.  They boldly argue, ““As growing socioeconomic resources broaden the range of activities that people can choose, self-expression values broaden the range of activities to which they aspire.”  People who have become “materially, intellectually, and socially more independent” also want political independence, and thus they give “liberty priority over discipline, diversity over conformity, and autonomy over authority.”

Can we find evidence that this is happening in China?  The evidence is mixed.  Hundreds of millions of Chinese netizens have been expressing themselves on social media like Weibo.  In fact, it is estimated that over half of all Chinese are now social media users, about the same level as France, Spain, or Brazil.  The Wave 4 Asian Barometer survey, conducted in Mainland China in 2015 and 2016, found that about half of Chinese have Internet access at their homes, and even more (56%) access it on their mobile phones.  Half say they use social media to find out information about politics and government at least several times a week.  Only one in ten Chinese reports using the Internet to express political opinions at least one to two times per week, but that proportion is similar to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea.

The sheer quantity of use is staggering, and although Internet censorship in China is so extensive and resource-intensive that it has earned its own name—the Great Firewall—users have invented ingenious memes and forms of adaptation to sustain some flow of critical expression.  Yet these posts are closely monitored, and anything that smacks of mobilization for collective action is quickly purged.  The legal profession has indeed been growing, but any lawyer who defends a human rights activist is herself liable to be prosecuted and jailed. 

What do the Chinese people think?  This is very hard to know because it is hard to determine with modern social science methods in a country as authoritarian as China.  Yet the Asian Barometer has been able to ask in mainland China a number of questions that reflect basic democratic or liberal value orientations.  I want to share here some of the data from the most recent fourth-wave survey, conducted in China in 2015-16, and compare it with the third-wave data from 2011.  In 2016, there was not much support for what Daniel A. Bell has advanced as the core feature of “the China model”—meritocracy.  When asked whether leaders should be chosen on the basis of virtue or by the people through competitive elections, 80% of the sample in China said competitive elections, about the same level as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea (and up appreciably from 63% in 2011).  Only 20% of Chinese in the PRC believe leaders should be chosen on the basis of virtue.  And when asked to choose between the following two statements:
1. “Government is our employee; the people should tell government what needs to be done.”  OR
2. The government is like a parent, it should decide what is good for us,”
60% of Mainland Chinese say that government is their employee, not their parent.  That is only a little less than the percentages giving this democratic response in Taiwan (70%) and Hong Kong 78%.

Across six measures of democratic value orientations, I believe the following points are noteworthy.  First, on every single one of these measures, there is a significant critical mass of the Mainland Chinese public—at least two in five, and on one measure 70 percent—that expresses a democratic value orientation.  Second, this is a demanding test, because to express the democratic viewpoint, the respondent must disagree with the statement, and there is always at least a modest response bias toward agreement with survey items.  Third, comparing the survey responses from 2011 and 2015, there is impressive consistency.  Democratic value orientations did not grow much in these five years, but neither did they deteriorate (a couple of items improved, and only one declined by as much as five points).  Finally, on some of these items, Mainland Chinese citizens are not that much different from their peers in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

There is something else noteworthy about this opinion data.  Thanks to the pioneering political culture work of the late Professor Hu Fu in Taiwan, and the commitment of his student, Chu Yun-han, to continue asking these questions, we have an extraordinary time series of value orientations in Taiwan.  Some of these items have been asked in Taiwan regularly since 1994, and as we see in Table 3, the democratic value orientations in Mainland China today are not much different from what prevailed in modernizing Taiwan in the mid-1980s.  To be sure, one factor that no doubt accelerated democratic value change in Taiwan was democratization itself, but I suspect that continued economic development and rising levels of education and access to information also had a lot to do with it.  To the extent that is the case, we should expect to see continued growth in democratic value orientations in Mainland China as well in the coming decade.

Yet, looking back from the first-wave survey conducted in Mainland China in 2002, we do not see a clear trend of growth in democratic values.  Rather we see an uneven pattern:  Some improvement over time, some deterioration, but mainly persistence at moderate to middling levels.  Probably the most we can say is that efforts at information management and ideological indoctrination seem to be bearing only limited fruit.  Citizens of the PRC manifest considerable pride in their political system, and more or less regard it as a democracy now.  Only 30 percent of Chinese say the current political system needs a major overhaul or should be replaced altogether.  Yet there are signs that a significant share of the Chinese public have come to manifest underlying democratic values.  And they appear to want to see China move in a democratic direction.  In the wave 4, 2016 survey, respondents were asked to place the political system on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being completely undemocratic and 10 completely democratic.  Only 17 percent thought the political system that had existed ten years ago merited a rating of 8-10.  One-third thought the system today falls into that range.  And more than half (54%) expect the political system to be more or less fully democratic (8-10) ten years from now.

I am not so naïve as to expect that democratic value change in China will be a neat linear process.  Under the weight of Xi Jinping’s multiple campaigns of ideological propaganda, Internet censorship, and enhanced political control, the growth of democratic values may stagnate or even reverse.  A conflict with the United States or Japan that stirs nationalism could plunge things back even further.  But none of this is likely to reverse or, in the long run, arrest the deeper processes of value change and aspirations for freedom and autonomy. 

China’s Authoritarian Power Projection

China is not only not becoming more democratic, it is becoming more globally self-confident, powerful and ambitious in its hardening authoritarianism. 

China now has a larger economy than the U.S. in purchasing power parity dollars, and it will probably surpass the U.S. in nominal dollars in five years.  It was inevitable that the size of the Chinese economy was going to equal and then surpass that of the United States.  Just do the math:  How long could a country with one-quarter the population of China maintain an economy more than four times as large as China’s?  The U.S. and Europe will remain, probably for decades to come, richer in per capita terms than China, but by 2050 China’s economy may be half again as large as that of the U.S.  The United States retains by far the most powerful military in the world, but that balance, too, is shifting, particularly in Asia.  The U.S. can no longer confidently force China to back down in a future confrontation, as it did in 1996, when it sent two carrier battle groups to either end of the Strait of Taiwan during a period of tension between the Beijing authorities and what they regard as an illegitimate government in Taipei.  In fact, China is developing—and may already have—anti-ship missiles that could sink a U.S. aircraft carrier. Its military budget has increased dramatically in recent years, and it is aggressively seeking to acquire advanced technologies through a variety of means—including industrial espionage, cyber theft on a massive scale, the flooding of American graduate programs in science and technology with Chinese students, and the achievement of corporate control through foreign investment.  The cutting-edge technologies China is pursuing have transformative commercial—and military—potential, including artificial intelligence, robotics, drone technology, virtual reality, blockchain technology, gene editing, and other biotech.

To be sure China is also rapidly developing its own scientific and technological breakthroughs, partly by building on the foundations of stolen or acquired technology, and it is now spending a much greater proportion of its GDP on research and development than is the United States.  This relentless, multidimensional, aggressive, and highly orchestrated campaign to capture, transfer, and innovate the technologies of the future will increasingly drive and shape the next generation of global economic growth as well as China’s continued rise to superpower status.  If the challenge is not addressed, it will also some day—possibly sooner than we want to think—neutralize or end the military superiority of the United States.  And that would make for a dramatically different world.

Right now, China is the most dynamic power in the world.  It is China that is pushing new geopolitical projects and institutions without (as in the case of Russia) relying (at least so far) on military force, namely the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the daring “One Belt and One Road”.  The latter, a vast network of new transportation and energy infrastructure projects, would link China with Central, South, and West Asia, all the way to Europe, potentially engaging dozens of countries with a combined GDP of $21 trillion. According to a recent essay by a Chinese official, “it aims to create the world’s largest platform for economic cooperation, including policy coordination, trade and financing collaboration, and social and cultural cooperation.”   There is nothing like this global vision or investment coming from the United States, or any collection of Western democracies.  And this is not to mention the spectacular expansion of Chinese aid and investment worldwide, including throughout Africa and Latin America, which by many accounts makes China now the largest bilateral source of foreign assistance in the world, as well as the increasingly energetic and sophisticated projection of Chinese cultural and political soft power through grants to universities and think tanks and funding of Confucius institutes.   This power projection can be—as neo-colonialism is—heavy-handed and arrogant, provoking resentment in the host society when it wakes up to the hidden and self-serving agendas behind the aid.  But for now and possibly many years to come, the greatest initiative, vision, and institutional innovation in the world is coming from China, not the United States.  And this constitutes a more serious long-term challenge to the global leadership of the liberal democratic West than does Russian aggression and subversion. Russia lacks an organic foundation for economic growth and technological dynamism beyond its criminal petro-state, whereas China has a dynamic private sector, even if it is heavily state-linked and state-directed.  Beyond the fact that China has a much bigger population and economy than Russia’s, it is soon going to be richer than Russia even in per capita terms, and its geopolitical rise is much more sustainable.

China is taking advantage of an epochal moment in post-World War II history.  The set of liberal internationalist institutions constructed by Truman and Acheson and the victorious democratic alliance after World War II are now badly fraying and in need of reform.  The U.S. and European dominance of these institutions cannot be indefinitely preserved without hollowing them out and leaving the way for the emergence of ultimately more powerful rival institutions.  That is part of the message of the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.  That is why the Trans-Pacific Partnership was so visionary and so much needed.  It was not only a way of moving economic integration forward—and with more serious labor and environmental standards than probably any new multilateral trade agreement outside the European Common Market—but a strategy for constructing a broader arena of economic and political association in Asia in which the United States would be central and in which China would not dominate.  The U.S. decision to withdraw from the TPP is the most grievous self-inflicted wound to America’s position of global leadership since the creation of the liberal world order after World War II.  It is a massive gift to authoritarian China, an underestimated blow to democratic aspirations in Southeast Asia, and a stunning symbol and accelerator of China’s rise and America’s descent on the Asian—and therefore inevitably, global—stage.

But China is moving well beyond these familiar dimensions of power projection.  China is seeking to penetrate the economies, societies, and cultures of the Western democracies so deeply and seamlessly that we do not even realize how our popular sovereignty and freedom—not least the freedom to criticize China—have been compromised.  Analysts are only now beginning to piece together the full scope of this strategy, but it involves:
• The relentless global expansion of Chinese state media enterprises, such as Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Daily, and CGTV, which—unlike the BBC, CNN, or Deutsche Welle—offer a uniformly rosy view of China, its government, and its intentions.
• The aggressive expansion of Confucius Institutes and other initiatives to promote the study of Chinese language and culture while conveying the Chinese state’s political line.
• Growing efforts to penetrate U.S. movie, media and information companies, as with the recent purchase of the second largest chain of movie theaters in the U.S., AMC.
• The rapid expansion of Chinese ownership of vast tracts of farmland and critical industries and infrastructure worldwide.
• And opaque flows of support to American institutions and individuals to fund sympathetic studies of China

Perhaps most ominous is the current effort of one of China’s largest and most opaque business conglomerates, HNA to establish in New York a charitable foundation to directly fund a variety of “philanthropic” activities in the U.S.  With $18 billion in assets, this foundation—whose resources come from what many observers presume to be a front company for the Chinese state or Communist Party—would be the second largest foundation in the U.S., positioned to distribute nearly a billion dollars a year to promote a vast network of friendly societal ties with the world’s most powerful dictatorship.


China watchers will surely want to wait and digest the results and read the tea leaves of the 19th Party Congress.  But I think the broad contours of what has been happening are now clearly visible.  Xi Jinping faced a fork in the road when he came into power five years ago.  There was clearly a desire for stronger leadership and an assault on corruption.  Xi could have met the moment with gradual and sequenced political reform that would have rallied the society to his side in a campaign for better governance and moved China in the direction of the partly free category Harry Rowen anticipated and the hybrid system of “authoritarian pluralism” that Robert Scalapino identified as a distinctive feature of the Asian miracle states of Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.  Xi could have laid out a vision and a plan for the critical steps that will be needed to modernize China’s political institutions:
• Gradual separation of the party from the state through the creation of a more independent and professional state bureaucracy.  Without this step, China cannot move toward truly meritocratic government, because loyalty to the party and to party clientelistic relations will always trump competence.
• More urgent separation of the party from the judiciary, so that citizens could have better access to justice and corrupt politicians could have fairer and more reliable access to jail.
• Movement toward a freer and more open society, with more space for independent organization.
• Movement of competitive elections up the scale of political authority, from the village to the township level, and then the county level.

Xi could have done these things, but he did not, and it is now too late for him to do so, because he has made too many enemies along the way to the intense concentration and glorification of his personal power.  Moreover, there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the doubling down on ideology, control, and personal charisma that now define Xi’s political era and the political institutionalization, societal decompression, and increasing space for independent expression and organization that constitute key components of authoritarian pluralism. 

I therefore fear we are entering a really dangerous time, because charismatic autocrats who concentrate power in their own hands also tend to want to aggrandize their power internationally.  And worse, Xi must know that this stagnant political project has some of the features of a giant Ponzi scheme, which must keep taking in ever more money (or in this case, power) under false pretenses or it will cave in on itself.  While the legitimacy of the Chinese communist regime looks strong, it is brittle.  This is why PRC elites are sending their wealth and their families abroad, buying homes and planting roots abroad, and many fear it also explains why Xi’s bid for regional and perhaps global dominance cannot be separated from his bid to extend indefinitely the absolute authority of the Party, and probably of himself as its leader.

This is not a scenario for stability, or for “peaceful rise” of the world’s next superpower.  Sooner or later, China’s leaders are going to have to wrestle in a more open and far-sighted way with the imperatives for political opening and modernization generated by social and economic modernization, with its attendant value change.  But the time between then and now is going to be a very dangerous interlude for China, for the United States, and for the world.