If People Lead, Elites Will Follow
Minxin Pei makes two claims in his analysis of present-day China. One is that China’s political economy is much weaker than many suppose. The other is that the result of this weakness will not be democracy, but a protracted period of decay resulting in crisis and, presumably, a new form of authoritarianism or even anarchy. ...
Minxin Pei makes two claims in his analysis of present-day China. One is that China's political economy is much weaker than many suppose. The other is that the result of this weakness will not be democracy, but a protracted period of decay resulting in crisis and, presumably, a new form of authoritarianism or even anarchy. The first point is true. The second is doubtful.
Minxin Pei makes two claims in his analysis of present-day China. One is that China’s political economy is much weaker than many suppose. The other is that the result of this weakness will not be democracy, but a protracted period of decay resulting in crisis and, presumably, a new form of authoritarianism or even anarchy. The first point is true. The second is doubtful.
Pei amply documents the many problems within China’s political and economic systems. One question raised by his analysis is whether these problems are any more severe than the challenges faced by other developing countries. Take one example: China ranks as an average performer for its income level on most of the World Bank Institute governance indicators. If China’s problems are merely a question of being poor, then it argues in favor of the regime’s claim that "economic development is the primary task."
Ultimately, however, the most relevant gauge of the severity of China’s problems will not be found in number-crunching by social scientists or exhortations by Chinese Communist Party leaders, but in the opinions of China’s citizens. Decay, in other words, is in the eyes of the governed. As Pei suggests, legitimacy in present-day China is probably quite high, both among elites and average people. In my own research on government legitimacy in 72 countries between 1998 and 2002, China ranked 13th overall, ahead of both Australia and Britain. Even assuming a modest decline since then, China’s leaders still likely enjoy a high degree of legitimacy.
An unstated assumption links Pei’s first claim to his second. It is that either China’s system of government will falter in delivering on its legitimacy-enhancing promises, or public opinion of the government’s performance will turn negative. Pei seems to favor the former, believing that China’s governance problems "will generate social tensions and mass alienation, thus eroding the party’s base of support." I favor the latter. Either way, the result will be the same: a crisis of legitimacy.
That brings us to Pei’s second claim, that decay will not lead to democracy. One problem with making such a prediction is that history has not provided a clear answer to the causes of democratization. It is impossible to examine reliably whether such factors are present or absent in today’s China, or whether they will be in the future. But we do know that, one by one, authoritarian regimes have fallen for the past century and today constitute fewer than one third of all states.
Some scholars, including Pei, attribute this trend to economics — new business elites, class tensions, international capital flows. Yet these mechanisms may be the least important. Internal political decay, evolving social values, pluralism, and governance crises can loom much larger. History clearly shows that democracy is wanted by most people in most countries most of the time. China’s own history is dotted with repeated pockets of pro-democracy agitation. Moral beliefs drive political outcomes, perhaps more than anything else. "The power of the powerless," to use Vaclav Havel’s phrase, lies in the power of beliefs. Once a society demands democracy, elites will step forward to support that demand. But don’t expect to see elites making such moves until very late in the game.
Political and economic decay itself hardly precludes democracy. I shudder to imagine Pei’s formidable analytic powers unleashed on Ferdinand Marcos-era Philippines, Enver Hoxha’s Albania, Suharto’s Indonesia, or Milton Obote’s Uganda. Yet all of these countries are functioning democracies today. They have all consistently foiled the pessimistic predictions of analysts and scholars. Indeed, over the past 30 years, communist regimes have been the most likely to give way to successful democracies. Only a very small minority of them fell into any sort of sustained civil war or authoritarian relapse. If Albania can emerge from a half century of decay as a successful democracy, why not China?
It is easier to envision danger and failure than it is hope and success. But hope and success are the most common outcomes of communist collapse. China’s future is bright because the Communist Party’s future is dim. We ill-prepare ourselves by living in fear of this future.
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