Must China 'Democratize or Die'? : Complacent Assumptions about Chinese Politics Deflated by SARS

Article excerpt

John Clark is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He teaches Chinese politics at Indiana University at Indianapolis.

On June 24 the World Health Organization lifted its severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) advisory warning the world against traveling to Beijing, in effect officially declaring that China had survived the first global public health crisis of the twenty-first century. The new Chinese government of Hu Jintao had survived its first political crisis as well. At the height of the media-fueled frenzy about SARS, some China watchers speculated that Beijing's mishandling of an emergency it had itself created might even topple communism. Hu and his supporters ought to heave a collective sigh of relief, as they have come out of the crisis stronger than they were half a year before.

Hu's recent formal accession to power has been curiously punctuated by SARS. In November 2002 he took over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), just as doctors in the southern province of Guangdong saw the first cases of a mysterious and nasty strain of atypical pneumonia start to fill hospital beds--and morgues--and just as Chinese officials began months of denying that anything was wrong. Hu became president of China on March 15, just weeks before he was forced to admit his government had been lying and SARS really was a serious problem. The World Health Organization's declaration of the end of the SARS crisis came just a week before Hu was to deliver his first major speech as head of China, at the anniversary of the formation of the CCP. To combat the disease, his government had promised unprecedented accountability and transparency, which many hoped would continue after the emergency had ended. Some even thought Hu might use the occasion to announce new steps toward a more democratic China.

Those who had hoped that SARS would lead to "glasnost with Chinese characters," much less to democracy, clearly were expecting too much. The crisis did, however, shine a spotlight on forces gradually changing Chinese politics, such as skittish international businesspeople, information swishing uncontrolled across China's borders, and the very real sense of professional responsibility and ethics taking root in many influential groups within the country. The crisis vividly illuminated deep inequalities at the core of China's remarkable economic transformation that might someday contribute to a genuine political upheaval. It showed the fragility of power in China and the constraints on those who wield power. We knew these things before, but now we understand them better.

More than telling us new things about China, the episode reveals new things about our understanding, or misunderstanding, of China. It seemed at first clearly to confirm many comfortable assumptions about the necessity and direction of political change in China ... and then deflated them. Midway through the crisis, it seemed obvious that democracies perform better than dictatorships, as the health of China and the world was jeopardized by crude attempts to impede the free flow of information about the illness. It seemed incontrovertible that engagement in the global economy would continue to subvert the power of despots: the Chinese government's attempts to suppress news of the crisis were defeated by the Internet and text messaging, and hitherto disregarded and powerless multilateral institutions such as WHO turned out to possess the ability to force China's rulers to admit the truth, despite a massive loss of face. Finally, it seemed all but certain that China's incompetent dictatorship, wrenched open by actors and factors outside its control, would proceed even more quickly toward democratic reform.

Reality is more complicated. By the end of the crisis, these complacent assumptions had been deflated. The political implications of SARS are ambiguous. Authoritarian governments may respond better to emergencies than democracies do. …