Is the jury really in on China?

The Financial Times’ Edward Luce talks today about the ways in which U.S. perceptions of China have changed: [N]o amount of dexterity can disguise the fact that Mr Obama’s visit to China crystallises a big shift in the global centre of gravity over the past few years. Just a decade ago Bill Clinton persuaded Capitol ...

The Financial Times' Edward Luce talks today about the ways in which U.S. perceptions of China have changed:

[N]o amount of dexterity can disguise the fact that Mr Obama’s visit to China crystallises a big shift in the global centre of gravity over the past few years. Just a decade ago Bill Clinton persuaded Capitol Hill that China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation would strengthen the forces of democracy within China.

Today, almost nobody in Washington even tries to make that case. Subsequent developments in China – and elsewhere – make it hard to sustain the argument that economic liberalisation leads necessarily to political liberty.

The Financial Times’ Edward Luce talks today about the ways in which U.S. perceptions of China have changed:

[N]o amount of dexterity can disguise the fact that Mr Obama’s visit to China crystallises a big shift in the global centre of gravity over the past few years. Just a decade ago Bill Clinton persuaded Capitol Hill that China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation would strengthen the forces of democracy within China.

Today, almost nobody in Washington even tries to make that case. Subsequent developments in China – and elsewhere – make it hard to sustain the argument that economic liberalisation leads necessarily to political liberty.

Hmmm….. really? 

I’m not saying Luce doesn’t have a point.  China’s been opening to the world for two decades now and Beijing’s Freedom House score on accountability and public voice hasn’t really budged (and stories like these don’t help).  So anyone who thinks that economic liberalization will lead to political liberalization in the short-term is fooling themselves. 

That said, this isn’t a short-term game that’s being played.  Freedom House also acknowledges that, "Even though political institutions in China have not undergone major change, the degree to which Chinese can manage their own lives has increased substantially in the reform era."  Furthermore, as someone watching their foreign economic policy, I think it’s safe to say that the current Chinese leadership is far more sensitive to domestic political pressures than was the case a decade ago (whether the Chinese public actually wants what Kantian liberals think they want is another matter entirely). 

China might be one of the toughest tests imaginable on the relationship between economic and political liberalization.  The country has a strong civilizational identity, but the leadership is acutely aware of the rebellious tendencies of some of its ethnic minorities.  The population is so huge that even after decades of double-digit economic growth, a lot of Chinese citizens are dirt poor.  It will likely take another decade for China’s GDP per capita figure to rise to the level when most political science models would predict some push towards democratization. 

I certainly don’t think U.S. policymakers can sit around and wait for China to democratize as the answer to policy problems in the Pacific Rim.  But neither am I convinced that China’s domestic polity has reached its final steady state. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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