In 2006, Chinese American scholar Minxin Pei published a book called “China’s Trapped Transition.” In it, he invoked the most established “law” in political science — that over time, countries that grow economically tend to become more democratic. (Oil-rich states are the exception.) China had achieved decades of growth, Pei pointed out, yet had made almost no moves toward openness. In private and public conversations around the publication of his book, he predicted that problems would emerge in six to seven years — in other words, right about now. So, I asked him, is what we are witnessing in Hong Kong a major crisis?
Pei has learned some lessons about protests. During the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, he was a young graduate student from China. He raised money and spoke out in support of the protests back home. But, he says, “I realized that student protests are hard to sustain. The leadership tends to split, and public support wanes. After using excessive force, the Hong Kong authorities now appear to have adopted a strategy of waiting it out and allowing the protests to dissipate.” But no matter; Hong Kong’s turmoil today has huge implications for China.
The historical case as to why China should be moving toward greater democracy is clear. Scholars have argued that there is a “zone of transition” for authoritarian countries when this happens — between $5,000 to $10,000 per capita GDP (in purchasing power terms). China is at the top of the range, around $10,000. Given China’s level of economic, social and educational development, it is highly unusual that China, among Asian nations, has seen almost no movement toward political reform.
Pei argues that perhaps what explains the Chinese anomaly is that the ruling elites have been united, confident and ferocious in their determination to maintain a one-party system. In Taiwan, after Chiang Ching-kuo’s death, the elites split, as they did in South Korea, Indonesia and, of course, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. That split, between a reformist wing and a hard-line wing, has not happened in China.
There is another analogy to the Soviet case. The pressure for reform in Russia in the 1980s was real but limited. It was pervasive in Poland and Czechoslovakia, the most economically developed countries under Soviet influence. And that put pressure on the whole system and on Moscow. Hong Kong is like Eastern Europe, a rich but unfree outpost of the empire.
Pei cautions that the events in Hong Kong are unlikely to spill over into the mainland. “The system of control, patronage and surveillance on the mainland is too strong,” he says. (I would add that there is also considerable support for a status quo in China that has quadrupled the average person’s income over the past two decades.) But, he argues, the Communist Party could develop rifts on how to deal with the protests and how to ensure that they don’t happen on the mainland. The Communist Party is going to have to prepare for a much more systematic program of repression if it intends to continue on a path of no reform. “And things will get even more tense within the party if economic growth starts to slow,” Pei adds.
The party is already in the midst of some internal conflict. The purge of former senior leader Bo Xilai may have been a precursor to other rifts. President Xi Jinping seems all-powerful and clearly is trying to clean up the party and its image at home. But his anti-corruption campaign inevitably is unseating powerful figures, creating internal fears and tensions, and pitting factions against each other.
The solution for China is obvious: political reform. This has been seen and advocated by many senior leaders within the party, from Li Rui, Zhao Ziyang and, in more recent times, Wen Jiabao. In two interviews with me (the more recent was four years ago), Wen, premier of China from 2002 to 2012, insisted that political reform had to follow economic reform. But it never happened because reform threatens the party’s monopoly of power.
China will not become a Western-style liberal democracy. But it should consider the example of Singapore, an Asian city-state that has a strong one-party system but also legal opposition parties, reasonably free elections and real independent courts. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously visited Singapore in November 1978 and learned about Singapore’s economic system before beginning reforms at home. President Xi Jinping would do well to take a similar trip to the island nation soon.
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