China's Political Evolution: Implications for Beijing's Foreign Relations: Toronto, October 12, 2006
Pei, Minxin, Behind the Headlines
China's relationship with the rest of the world is not determined only by the size and speed of its economic growth. In the decades to come it will really be determined by the nature of the Chinese political system.
Today I will first say something about China's political evolution since it opened its doors to the rest of the world about thirty years ago. I will then discuss the nature of the Chinese political system today and finally I will address how that political system interacts with the rest of the world.
About thirty years ago when China began opening to the rest of the world the country was practically speaking what North Korea is today. It was just out of a two-decade nightmare of radical Communist rule, governed by a megalomaniacal dictatorial leader whose sole interest was the perpetuation of his own power, not the welfare of his people. Thanks to the leadership of Mr. Deng Ziaoping and his colleagues China decided to go in a very different direction. Thirty years later the country is almost completely transformed, especially economically.
China has made enormously positive progress measured in practically all dimensions. The Chinese enjoy more personal freedoms than probably they have ever enjoyed in modern memory, ranging from the ability to travel and to find gainful employment, to social mobility as a result of economic reform, and to access to information: As someone who grew up in China I can recall the days when people ran the risk of going to jail if they listened to Voice of America or to the BBC. Today it is quite routine for people to not just listen to programs on these stations but also to surf their websites.
Economic opportunities in China have also expanded tremendously. Across the whole range of economic well-being the Chinese people today are much better off than at any time in history. Taking together social mobility, individual freedom and economic opportunity the Chinese people ought to be very proud of what they have achieved in the last thirty years.
The political system is more problematic. Politics is the key because political power determines the policies that control cultural activities, education, economic policies, social mobility--everything. At the end of the day we have to look at politics. Whether China will continue along a dynamic path toward more openness, economic progress and individual freedoms really depends on whether its political system evolves in a more liberal, open, and democratic direction.
And here we see a huge puzzle. If we look very narrowly at the area of political governance and political democracy, we wonder whether the China we are looking at is the same China we hear so much about, the one for which we have so many hopes. If we measure democracy and the rule of law, China has made much less progress than in its economy. I'm not suggesting that China remains in the Dark Ages--there has been enormous progress, admittedly from a low baseline. China has said goodbye to the days of the Cultural Revolution. But what interests us is where China will be thirty years from now. We are hoping to compare ourselves quite proudly with countries that one associates with personal liberties, personal freedoms, and political democracy.
When we attempt to measure China's progress with respect to political freedoms and the ruling elite's commitment to political reform, I would say that political evolution has regressed while the economy has skyrocketed. Initially when China began its opening to the rest of the world its political progress was not that far behind its economic progress. The leadership in the 1980s understood that to sustain the economic opening to the West they must also bring their political system closer in line with the rest of the world. That is why they introduced legal reforms, began experimenting with village elections, and gave the national legislature some autonomous power, creating some division of labour within government.
However, after the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and more importantly after China entered the 1990s and began its amazing economic takeoff, we saw political trends in China going in the opposite direction. Chinese politics overall became more conservative and the pace of political reform reversed--in terms of more competitive politics, a stronger rule of law, increased civic freedoms (especially for non-governmental organizations), greater intellectual freedom in the political sphere, more freedom for the intelligentsia to discuss sensitive political topics such as whether China should have political competition, more than one political party, whether the Chinese constitution should have real authority rather than the self-claimed ruling power of the Chinese Communist Party. In the 1980s these issues were open for debate. In the 1990s they were not.
How do we explain this divergence, with the economy moving in one direction and the political realm moving in the opposite? Most of us who are accustomed to the Western experience would automatically associate growing economic prosperity with growing political freedoms. But the relationship is not that simple, it is not linear, and it is far more complex.
In the short term economic prosperity can be quite a negative factor for the expansion of political freedoms. It is crucial to recognize this when trying to understand how to deal with China and how to make sense of what is occurring in China domestically.
First of all, economic freedom and growth typically provide a new source of political legitimacy. Today the Chinese government depends on its ability to deliver economic growth to justify its claim to political authority. When looking at the history of political democratization in the developing world we find an interesting coincidence; authoritarian or one-party regimes typically do not open up the political process when the economy is strong. They don't need to. They already have a performance-based legitimacy. On the other hand, when such political systems are opened they typically encounter severe economic crises or in many cases spectacular economic collapses. Economic prosperity in the short term bolsters authoritarian governments and undermines the incentives for political openings.
The second reason is less obvious and has a lot to do with the immediate interests of the ruling elites. Political power in a poor country is not worth as much as political power in a richer economy that is growing very fast. China's is an economy in which political power defines property rights and controls economic resources; in other words, the way wealth is created in that economy depends a lot on political power. Political power is actually very valuable, and its value increases with economic wealth. In this context giving up political power equates to also giving up economic wealth and the potential for huge economic wealth.
Finally, we often forget that authoritarian political parties are learning organizations. Today China probably has the most skilful, knowledgeable and cosmopolitan ruling elites of any authoritarian regime in the world. This is a government that is extremely clever with respect to three issues.
The first is that it is very sensitive to the need to adjust policy in order to demonstrate its competence. When today's Chinese leadership sees inequality, environmental degradation, lack of access to health care it adjusts policy in these areas. It no longer talks about "the harmonious society"; it is cutting agricultural taxes, increasing health expenditures, eliminating school fees for poor children. These are public policy responses, albeit responses which are currently quite limited.
The leadership also understands that economic growth provides it with enormous wealth to co-opt or include social elites into the ruling alliance. The Communist Party of thirty years ago was based on the support of workers and peasants. Its membership and leadership came predominantly from these groups. But today it is a party based on a narrow slice of Chinese society, mainly technocrats and professionals. This kind of party really does not have much to fear from the so-called angry masses but it does need to worry about social elites. One-party regimes tend to encounter very strong opposition from other social elites--the intelligentsia and private entrepreneurs. One party regimes with these types of social elites as potential enemies are in big trouble. One of the lessons the Chinese Communist Party has learned--particularly from the collapse of the former Soviet Union--is that it must not have the intelligentsia in the opposition. As a result the Chinese Communist Party began a very systematic effort to include new social elites in the Party, even giving them government positions. Lately it has expanded its campaign to include private entrepreneurs. It is now a wide and extremely capable ruling coalition.
Third, economic growth allows the government to invest a great deal in law enforcement and a capacity to deal with protest from those unhappy with the current system.
So today the Chinese government uses a mixture of carrots and sticks: carrots, the co-optation of elites; and sticks, very tough measures against those who openly want to challenge the government's authority and those individuals who want to protest against what they perceive as social injustice.
China today therefore presents a very mixed picture. Economically it is integrating with the rest of the world, while politically it is governed by a ruling group that is technically extremely competent but that shows no willingness to move the country along the road to democracy.
Where does that leave us in terms of China's relationship with the rest of the world? What are the implications of this kind of political system in China for its foreign policy?
Let me first deal with the good news. In Washington, where I live and work, we hear a lot of worries about China being an "expansionist power". China is "rising", China will "challenge" the supremacy of the United States, China will "dominate" first East Asia, then Asia, then the rest of the world. But these predictions are fantasy. For a variety of reasons China is a long way from being tomorrow's superpower.
It is unlikely that China will be an expansionist superpower first and foremost because the Chinese leadership understands that foreign expansionism was one of the principal reasons for the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and that economic growth and prosperity are key to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese economy is integrated with the rest of the world--foreign trade accounts for almost seventy percent of its GDP. China relies on the rest of the world for exports, and for its imports of critical materials. If China foolishly engaged in military expansionism abroad it would endanger the peaceful international environment that is critical to its economic growth. Without international stability it can kiss its economic prosperity goodbye, and that would create a very difficult domestic situation. This is the most fundamental reason for a prudent and pragmatic foreign policy.
The other reason we should not worry about China being an expansionist power is that it does not have a messianic worldview. If you want to dominate the world you really must have some driving ideas. Power is not enough. You must have some kind of belief that convinces you the world ought to be run the way you want it to be. The U.S. has this messianic view about its role in the world. But the worldview of China today is prosaic. It might not even have one other than "the world exists for us to make money".
Despite the rapid speed of economic growth China remains a very poor country, Technologically speaking China is still one of the Third World countries. In terms of military capacity China can never challenge the U.S. Indeed it has much less capable naval and air forces than Japan.
But the kind of China I described earlier does present a serious challenge for the rest of the world, especially for Western democracies. First of all, it has a deep human rights problem. Western democracies define their relationships with other countries in the post Cold War era not on the basis of economic ties--even though economic ties are important--but on the nature of their political systems. Not that we in the West are overly ideological or that Western democracies just happen to believe in a collection of fundamental human rights. This is rather a result of domestic political processes in Western democracies. The West's relations with China will always have strict limits so long as China remains a one party political system that denies basic human rights. There is a level of discomfort always present in the minds of Western leaders when they deal with unelected leaders. They function on different principles, they obey different rules, and there is always a ceiling to the relationship. China can never be a genuine strategic partner of Western democracies as long as it is not a democracy. It can be a very useful tactical partner that brings certain desired assets to the table. This is why China is a partner in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis, but Washington would not include China among its permanent friends, because of its political system.
The second problem is that domestic problems will spill over into the international arena. Non-democratic systems function with different incentive structures, they respond to different accountability systems, and by and large governance tends to be poorer. Democratic systems have the ability to mobilize all kinds of resources to meet social and economic challenges. If this is true, the social and environmental problems we see in China today will have international consequences, for instance from environmental degradation or public health disasters.
Corruption within this political system is also a concern. Authoritarian governments tend to be far more corrupt than democratic ones. There is no rule of law, no press freedom, no NGO monitoring. One of the biggest problems for China these days is the flight of corrupt officials along with their stolen wealth to democracies in the West where they can enjoy the protection of the rule of law. Some more cynical observers may think this is good as it could speed up the collapse of China. But when stolen wealth resides in your communities you will pay a price too.
Two issues that worry the West most about China are closely related to the political system. The guiding principle of Chinese foreign policy is not revolution, but realism. Realism is fine--it makes governments pragmatic. But when facing the world's future challenges realism is not enough. It provides a minimalist recipe for coping with the anarchical nature of world affairs. But we all know that in the next twenty or thirty years the world will face all kinds of challenges that require multilateralism, that require genuine cooperation. And that means we need a different guiding principle for foreign policy--one called liberalism.
Can China under its undemocratic system adopt a liberalist international policy? I think it is inconceivable. Historically we have not found a single case of an authoritarian government practicing illiberalism at home while practicing liberalism abroad. I think fundamentally an illiberal regime is incapable of liberal international policy. It follows that it will be very hard to get China on board on a series of global issues, especially the environment, energy and global security.
That is the real challenge--how can China overcome its authoritarian, realist foreign policy paradigm and embrace the democratic internationalist liberal paradigm?
Of far more immediate concern to the rest of the world is China's relationship with other authoritarian regimes. In my last point I was asking whether China could go beyond the traditional realist model--but today we see that China is expert at playing the realist game. It is taking advantage of the isolation of many detestable authoritarian regimes around the world such as Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Sudan, North Korea, and providing them with economic and sometimes political support. (Because of its recent nuclear test North Korea is probably now in a different category.) China's relationship with these regimes makes it very difficult for Western democracies to exert real pressure on these countries to stop genocide in the case of Sudan or to stop widespread human rights abuses in the case of Myanmar. Would China have the same kind of cozy relationship with these regimes if it were a democracy? It is hard to imagine so.
Can we do anything to change China? What can we do to make China's political system close the gap with its economic system and to make the mindset of the Chinese ruling elites move closer to the mindsets of leaders of Western democracies? As long as the mindsets are different there will be communication problems. I have never been to a human rights dialogue between China and Canada or between China and the EU, but I can imagine how the conversation would go. There would be no real exchange because the philosophical perspectives are so different.
But there are small things we can do to demonstrate, especially to the ruling elites in China, that they are paying a price for the gap between their political system and the dominant political systems in the world, namely democracies. You may recall the political storm that came about in this country when a Chinese state-owned company was trying to acquire a huge Canadian resource company. You will also remember the political firestorm in Washington when a Chinese oil company was trying to purchase an American oil company. Of course we can question the economic calculations underlying these deals, but would the reaction have been very different had China been a polity in which human rights were protected, where its leaders actually have to run for office. The terms of the debate would have been entirely different. And that is the price China is paying for not having the same kind of political system, or even a system that is moving in that direction.
Even though I am disappointed with the pace of political change in China the only option we have is engagement, but not uncritical engagement. I detest heaping praise on our Chinese colleagues, telling them they've done nothing wrong. That's not good for them, and they themselves don't believe it. We must be critical and engaging at the same time; critical engagement telling them where they've done right and where they've done wrong. That way they know we are not lying to them and we gain their respect.
Minxin Pei is Director of the China Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.…
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Publication information: Article title: China's Political Evolution: Implications for Beijing's Foreign Relations: Toronto, October 12, 2006. Contributors: Pei, Minxin - Author. Magazine title: Behind the Headlines. Volume: 63. Issue: 5 Publication date: Autumn 2006. Page number: 3+. © 2007 Canadian International Council. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.