China's Stubborn Anti-Democracy

By Ma, Ying | Policy Review, February-March 2007 | Go to article overview
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China's Stubborn Anti-Democracy

Ma, Ying, Policy Review

FOR MORE THAN a decade, successive U.S. presidents have declared that political liberalization leading ultimately to democratization in China would be desirable and decidedly in America's--and the world's--interests. The Clinton administration, after some initial tortuous twists and turns, fashioned a policy of "constructive engagement" with the Chinese government that called for close bilateral economic and political cooperation along with U.S. advocacy for democracy, open markets and human rights in China. The George W. Bush administration, though openly suspicious of China's opaque military buildup and strategic intentions, has exhorted China to become a "responsible stakeholder" of the international community while urging it to embrace democracy. To Washington, a China that is headed down a democratic path--even as it amasses military, political, and economic might--would offer the best assurance for peace, prosperity and cooperation with the United States and the world.

China, however, appears immune to and unmoved by U.S. wishes. American democracy promotion--ranging from economic engagement to democracy programs to lofty rhetoric--has not halted the speed at which the Chinese authoritarian behemoth presses on with grave human rights abuses. For now, U.S. hopes remain just hopes.

The reasons for democracy's slow boat to China are complicated: They range from American delusions to Chinese authoritarian resilience to Chinese nationalism. Far less complicated is the reality that as the United States trumpets democracy worldwide as a strategic objective and a sign of human progress, China is unabashedly providing a counter-example. Successful democratization in China, therefore, will not only usher in freedom for 1.3 billion Chinese citizens, but also strike a blow against the stubbornness of authoritarianism worldwide. It is therefore vital for U.S. policymakers to examine China's success in resisting democratization, reassess the tools and assumptions of current democracy promotion efforts, and think of new ways to remove the roadblocks to freedom.

The "inevitability" of change

MANY CHINA OBSERVERS have long been predicting that China's encounter with market forces or liberal institutions and instruments from the West would spur inevitable democratic change. These observers have been right that China would become more pluralistic and multifaceted. But they have been delusional in thinking that Chinese leaders would simply roll over and relinquish power when presented with new challenges to their rule. On everything ranging from trade to the Internet, from village elections to the rule of law, Chinese rulers have consistently proven China optimists wrong.

Economic engagement. The fundamental underpinning of American policy toward China today--and U.S. democracy promotion in China--is economic engagement. Since the U.S. Congress granted permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) to China in 2000, an underlying assumption of economic engagement with China is that the market forces unleashed by international trade and investment will necessarily spur economic and political change in Chinese society. Washington's assumption is spurred in no small part by the successful democratic transitions undertaken by other authoritarian regimes--such as those in Taiwan, South Korea, and Chile in the 1980s--after they had embarked on economic liberalization. Indeed, two decades-plus of U.S.-China trade have drastically altered the face of Chinese society, resulting in an unprecedented expansion of economic, social, and personal freedoms for ordinary Chinese citizens.

The links between economic liberalization and political reform, however, have turned out to be much more complicated and tenuous in the China case. More than six years after PNTR, drastic improvements in Chinese society have not been translated into political liberalization. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shows no interest in meaningful political reforms and has continued to rely on repression and brutality to maintain its rule.

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