China And Poland: Divergent Political Paths, Post-1989
Today marks not only the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, but also that of the first partially free elections in Poland. While Poland went on to become fully democratic, China remains an anomaly in that it is the only major economy in the world that has not democratised. How long will this situation prevail?
It is not the role of Risk Watchdog or Business Monitor International to advocate political change in China. That is up to China – by which I mean its leaders and its society – itself to decide. But I can at least speculate as to what might happen in future.
My initial concerns about rising unrest in China this year due to the global recession seem to have been overdone; China has remained peaceful. So long as the central government is seen as part of the solution to various problems rather than part of the problem, this will be the case.
However, the longer term sustainability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime must be called into question. Virtually every emerging economy has seen pressure for democracy build up and eventually prevail, once a certain level of development has been achieved. We have seen this in countries as diverse as Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Russia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Thus, it would be odd if this does not happen in China.
However, Chinese leaders and martial arts star Jackie Chan continue to reject democratisation on the grounds that this would lead to chaos. The CCP looks at what happened in Russia in the 1990s and shudders. So sensitive is this issue that the authorities last year reportedly banned Guns N’ Roses’ new album, Chinese Democracy. As for human rights, the CCP argues that it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and thus improved the most basic human rights of all. Moreover, it now releases an annual report criticising the US record on human rights.
Three Possible Scenarios For Political Evolution
Nonetheless, I see three possible scenarios over the coming decades:
• Peaceful, elite-led transition to multi-party rule. The best-case scenario might see the CCP dividing itself into two competing parties, one based on pro-market neoliberalism and the other on more redistributionist lines. Indeed, the global recession of 2009 threatens to sharpen the internal policy debate.
• Sudden collapse of central authority. The worst-case scenario would resemble Indonesia in 1998, whereby central rule collapsed following a financial meltdown, and the archipelago was torn asunder by separatist forces. It took five years to restore stability there.
• Continuation of one-party rule. This scenario is still realistic. It may be that the CCP manages to buy stability indefinitely through economic growth, without acceding to elections, or if elections are forced, the CCP could remain the most popular party, like Singapore’s People’s Action Party or Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party.
This year marks 60 years since the CCP came to power. The only longer periods of one-party rule I can think of are the Soviet Union (1917-91) and Mexico (1929-2000), both 70+ years. Thus, the CCP could rule at least another 10 years.
PS: For those wanting to know more about how democracy may come to China, I highly recommend China’s Democratic Future (Columbia University Press, 2004), by Bruce Gilley.