Undemocratic Capitalism: China and the Limits of Economism

By Zweig, David | The National Interest, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Undemocratic Capitalism: China and the Limits of Economism


Zweig, David, The National Interest


The Clinton administration's China policy has come under attack from many quarters for being too conciliatory, too optimistic and too compromised by a nexus of money and insider politics. But the President and his aides deflect each jab by contending that, despite episodic problems and pratfalls, a policy of engaging China on a broad range of issues has the best chance of maximizing American influence and impelling China toward positive change. The key dynamic is assumed to be rapid economic growth, which, it is tenaciously held, will result ultimately in political liberalization. That, in turn, would not solve all problems between the United States and China, but it would conventionalize those problems and, presumably, make them easier to manage.

In this line of assumptions the administration has many scholarly allies. Henry Rowen, Minxin Pei and many others have argued that one of the few hard conclusions of comparative politics - that rising income levels are conducive to political democratization - applies to China no less than it has applied to Europe and Latin America.(1) In this view, increased wealth, information and trade will create and mobilize a new middle class whose interests and social power will ultimately undermine the Communist Party's monopoly on political power, leading in due course to some form of democratic politics. According to this view, too, elections in rural China, advances toward the rule of law, the strengthening of the National People's Congress (NPC) and media liberalization exemplify political change already afoot in China as a result of economic marketization and growth.

While continued growth cannot be guaranteed, China's leaders have demonstrated an impressive ability to manage the economic difficulties foisted on China by the post-July 1997 Asian crisis. More important, they have demonstrated seriousness and flexibility in pursuing continued economic reform. President Jiang Zemin's policy proposals at the 15th Party Congress, held in September 1997, were bold. Promising to reform moribund state-owned enterprises (SOEs), Jiang reinterpreted the Marxist concept of state ownership of the means of production to include publicly held stocks (by both individuals and other firms). Bankruptcy law, takeovers, mergers and acquisitions - all features of a capitalist economy - received the Party's official blessing. Since then, China has demonstrated a further commitment to reform by reducing housing subsidies and the volume of public employment generally - efforts quite likely spurred on by revelations of structural deficiencies in the "Asian model" that have triggered the region's continuing economic crisis.

It is likely, therefore, that China's economy will grow enough over time to keep the basic question relevant: Will economic growth produce political liberalization? The answer is unclear. For economic growth to produce democratic politics - or at least more liberal politics - a middle class of private property owners who want to get the state off their backs must emerge. To generate such a class, China needs the growth and expansion of market forces, an effective system of property rights protected by the rule of law, and a much reduced role for bureaucratic authority in the economy. Ultimately, too, it needs enough political stability to allow this middle class to emerge, and it will require new political institutions to manage the demands of that class in a way that will not push Party leaders to co-opt it or even crush it before it achieves greater liberalization.

Many signs point to these positive trends, but strong counter-trends are also working against political liberalization despite - and in some cases because of - the rapid economic growth of recent decades. To sort out the evidence, three questions need especially careful examination. First, who will check the enormous power of China's bureaucrats whose authority and personal economic interests depend upon their ability to manipulate market forces? …

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