Will China Become a Democracy?

Will China Become a Democracy
China 1989, Student protest at Tienanmen Square, photo by Jiri Tondl

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Will China Become a Democracy?

Many political thinkers wonder whether China will become a democracy. Some think it is inevitable, while others believe it is impossible. But most simply don’t know how. As China continues to modernize, it seems inevitable citizens will demand greater influence in their government. Still, it is unclear whether this will lead toward democracy… or something else. Moreover, China’s economic growth has strengthened the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rather than brought about demands for political change. So, will China’s rapid economic growth eventually “breed its own discontents?”

Dan Slater and Joseph Wong believe China is a candidate for democratization through strength. They tackle the question in their forthcoming book From Development to Democracy. Many believe China missed its window to democratize in 1989 when the CCP responded to protests at Tiananmen with brutal repression. But Slater and Wong believe the CCP was not strong enough to “concede political reform with confidence.” They view Tiananmen as an expression of regime weakness rather than strength. But now “thirty years of developmental success might make democratization in China a nearer prospect rather than an increasingly distant one.” It’s an unconventional argument, but fits into their larger theory.

Still, Slater and Wong do not argue China will democratize because of its strength. Instead, China must enter what they call the “bittersweet” spot. They explain it “is ‘bitter’ for authoritarian regimes because it always includes a significant dose of bad tidings…. Yet it is still a ‘sweet spot’ because it contains significant hope for the regime’s democratic renewal.” Moreover, as China’s economic growth continues to slow, it may soon enter the bittersweet spot of its regime’s trajectory. Unfortunately, Xi’s leadership may cause China to miss this crucial window. So, China’s best opportunity for democratization may lie ahead, but it likely won’t take advantage of the opportunity.

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