China is not a dictatorship. This does not mean it is a democracy. Nor does it incorporate elements of democracy. The Chinese conception of consultative socialist democracy does not actually give power to the public. But it is an attempt to incorporate the concerns of people into public policy. Nonetheless, the experience of Tiananmen Square thirty years ago shows how effective it has been. The CCP has always relied on suppression to coerce the public. It must be acknowledged China has demonstrated the capacity to transition power from one leader to the next with regularity since the death of Mao, although Deng held disproportionate power to his position until his death as well. The past two leaders have stepped down without controversy to allow for a seamless transition. Xi Jinping likely wants to break with this tradition. Constitutional changes will allow him to remain in power beyond his next five-year term.
Under authoritarian power structures there is a vibrant society. Bruce Gilley in his recent contribution in The Journal of Democracy continues to predict democratization in China in the next decade. The politics in China begins with its ability to transform its economy and produce economic growth. Francis Fukuyama has said in multiple works how Deng Xiaoping established a new social contract with the people of China. The people accepted single party rule in exchange for dramatic economic growth. Yet China’s economic miracle is relatively recent. Writing in 1995, Fukuyama saw China far behind its Asian neighbors. Moreover, he did not believe China could produce large corporations. Today Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei are among the largest corporations in the world.
Bruce Gilley sees the Chinese economic transformation at a crossroads. The large state-owned enterprises continue to dominate the economy. There has been reform so they have achieved profitability, yet they continue to provide perks and privileges the private sector cannot provide. Moreover, the private sector faces constraints to their growth. The large Chinese corporations have found their independence compromise by the interests of the Communist Party. The American economic system continues to allow for a degree of creativity the Chinese system cannot replicate. The problem is not cultural. It is political. Business elites are indoctrinated into the aims of the CCP. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is a strong proponent of marketization and free enterprise. He has retired from his role as CEO of his company to focus on philanthropy. Yet, he has found it necessary to become a member of the Communist Party. Moreover, Alibaba has been tied to the development of the social credit system that will limit freedom of expression.
The stability of China has rested on its ability to provide a pathway to economic success. The challenge for China will become its diversity over a large geography. The marketization of the economy has incorporated economic elites into the political structure of the Chinese political system. But China is larger than its business interests. There are vast disparities between its coastal industrial cities and its impoverished interior. Chinese suppression extends beyond Tibet. The treatment of Uighur Muslims is incomprehensible for most of us in the West. And attempts to exterminate the Falun Gong movement affect nearly the entire nation. But Gilley focuses on a demographic crisis among the Chinese youth. The one child policy has produced a nation of young single men. Those outside the large metropolises lack the opportunities the CCP has produced. Crime continues to rise because their life is defined by frustration.
The challenge for China may not be an inevitable democratization. Instead, it may become unsustainable to keep such a large and diverse nation unified. China is the second largest nation for nominal GDP, but they are still just 69th in GDP per capita. Their economic power is largely based on the size of their population. A fragmentation of their political control would reset political power throughout the world. This may become the more likely challenge to China’s political system than democratization.