China’s Democratic Dilemma: Weathering Modernization and Expectation

By Jolen Martinez

In any particular state, conditions conducive to the emergence and maintenance of democracy must be preceded by a combination of economic and social factors. In their article, How Development Leads to Democracy, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel suggest that democratic institutions require a foundation of security, stability, growth, and accountability to take root and flourish. Upon my analysis of the socio-economic development of China and its potential democratization, I advise a liberal economic and political approach to US relations, as this approach has the potential to facilitate an increased interconnectedness and support for democracy among the Chinese working middle class.

            Economic modernization democracy theory argues that after certain levels of development, governmental institutions are primed for the presence of democratic values and the rule of law. With an increase in national productivity and individual quality of life, a country’s middle class is able to grow. No longer concerned with economic security, increasing populations of citizens search for ways to keep and expand their wealth, demanding governmental social policies and assurances (Inglehart and Welzel 2009: 34). Programs such as childcare, education, healthcare, and economic welfare are instituted to safeguard the rising middle class from slipping back into poverty by assuring them that their productivity is insured. With greater expression comes a guarantee of processual rights and civil liberties, holding the government more accountable to its people and thus more responsive to their demands. Inglehart and Welzel suggest that the trend towards democracy is subject to ebbs and flows, following no particular developmental pathway, instead, gathering momentum until the state structure can nurture and protect individual rights. In this way, despite the patterns of receding civil liberties, “the economic resurgence of China …(presents) underlying changes… that make the emergence of increasingly liberal and democratic political systems likely to develop” (Inglehart and Welzel 2009: 34).

China’s awe inspiring rate of economic growth can be traced back to institutions put into place during the Maoist era of socialist state planning. Communist development of both urban and rural areas primed the country for the structural reforms championed by Deng, which would eventually transform the nation. Further, Mao’s use of five year plans alongside his mobilization of the Chinese population via mass line policy set in motion the development of infrastructure, educational institutions, and healthy population, thereby facilitating future progress. The extensive provision of public goods like education and health services guaranteed that the populace sustained relatively high levels of health and literacy (Blecher 2015: 411).   Thus, the Maoist spirit of investment in human capital and industrial goods and resources provided the base line for increasing quality of life.
            Chinese economic progress became intimately connected with increasing quality of life and social guarantees. Sensing popular discontent with a stagnating economy and the effects of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms in order to liberalize the market, allowing the gradual decollectivization of communal farms and slow marketization, easing the Chinese economy away from state control and towards private industry. Through the early 1980s private markets and enterprises boomed, leading reformers to adopt new indirect forms of regulation and to back away from private life in a policy of CCP depoliticization. By 1989, the Maoist call for cleansing governmental corruption and providing political accountability to the masses had become a deeply held popular sentiment, eventually culminating in the Tiananmen Square protests. Despite the post-1989 subsequent crackdown and purging of political dissidents, a demand for cleaner politics, social welfare, and community support was met with increased privatization (Blecher 2015: 431).

            The Chinese Communist Party has redefined its ideological role in society as a medium for strengthening the economy and liberating the masses from social inequalities. It has tied its legitimacy to spectacular economic performance and improved quality of life (Minzer 2015: 141). Currently, slowing economic growth and increasing popular expectation for social assurances are coinciding with increasing dissatisfaction with the party’s control and redistribution of wealth. In response to the economic and social challenges that China faces, Xi Jinping has attempted to undo many of the reforms instituted by his more conciliatory predecessors such as Wen Jiabao. President Xi’s reversal of early 21st century economic reforms,  according to Carl Minzer, removes the institutions that have historically quelled calls for democratic reform, thus constituting a case of CCP self-cannibalism (Minzer 2015: 142). Prior to Jinping’s recentralization of power, Bo Xilai represented a “New Left” of socialist reform, reorienting the national agenda to protecting social equity. His redistributive reforms spelled an expansion of civil society at the grassroots level.  Chinese communities pushed for local autonomy and representation resulting in village elections nationwide. By 2012 however, Bo Xilai had been accused of corruption and sentenced to a life term in federal prison. Xi’s subsequent shutdown of the leftist movement under Xilai represents a further disconnect between the communist party and its founding message of protecting equality, further removing the party from its socialist roots and Maoist tradition.  

            China faces a difficult balancing act. In consolidating power in himself rather than the party, and increasing state control and direction of key industries, Xi must fight the rapidly increasing current for transparency, accountability, and a semblance of rule of law growing in the Chinese localities. Many people still remember and respect Bo Xilai’s movement for reform, and countless more demand a return to the autonomy they enjoyed under Wen Jiabao (Fewsmith 9). Additionally, although the Chinese economy is still growing at an awe-inspiring rate, wealth accumulation has created major income disparities that threaten the legitimacy of the communist party. Although conditions are far from erupting into a mass demonstration par Tiananmen Square 27 years ago, these new class divisions could trigger such a movement in the event of a severe economic crisis. Despite increasing prosperity and modernization, many Chinese respect the necessity of a strong central government to provide financial stability, and thus are willing to “permit (the party’s) monopoly” as a popular mandate (Blecher 457). President Xi, under the impression that he can reverse the tide of post-industrial demands, has thrown the party into a nationalist fervor against the left and liberalization, rendering him unable to accommodate both his promises of increased economic performance, and growing popular demand for accountability. It seems then, that the Chinese Communist Party, the people’s champion of the national revolution, approaches a future where it must face down its own subjects.

            The United States has had an important role in China’s modernization. As mentioned above, the presence of international trade between the two nations has ushered in a foundation of civil society which has progressively demanded enhanced governmental accountability. However, overt attempts to promote democracy in China have failed, as the Communist Party frequently claims that US democracy is a conspiracy and views its promotion as a strategic threat. Today however, more citizens are abandoning the state’s opposition to democratic institutions and have sought political support for human-rights guarantees (He 42). Although a certain level of rivalry between the two countries is necessary to press for specific changes in China’s policies, total competition and trade barriers will scuttle any hope of a semi-democratic transition in the near future. The level tension of US soft-power democracy promotion keeps the Communist party in a position of constantly making concessions to local Chinese communities for autonomy. This tension is assisted by the necessity that China must constantly engage in trading and finance practices with American businesses (He 43). Socio-economically, the middle class is rapidly growing from this extensive and ongoing relationship, and it is this same group that is simultaneously demanding better human rights and labor guarantees, environment protections, and more open foreign relations.
            Increased securitization along the South China Sea and or at the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands between the US and China,  in conjunction with Trump’s proposed protectionist trade policy and retrenchment of international corporations from business in China can shatter this productive, yet fragile tension established by China’s modernization. The United States should not perceive the present rivalry as a casus belli, or a realist incentive. Instead, they should use the economic leverage and the rising Chinese civil society to press for further concessions without undermining the nation’s transition from a processual-industrial state to a post-processual nation.


Blecher, Marc

      2015    “China: From State Socialist to Capitalist Iconoclast,” In Comparative Governance, edited by Paulette Kurzer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015(and updated triennially since 1995, under former editorship of W. Philips Shively)

Fewsmith, Joseph

     2012    “Bo Xilai and Reform: What Will Be the Impact of His Removal?” China Leadership Monitor,  Hoover Institute 38: 1-11

He, Baogang

    2013 Working with China to Promote Democracy, The Washington Quarterly, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 36:1, pp. 37-53

Inglehart, Ronald; Welzel, Christian

      2009 How Development Lead to Democracy, Foreign Affairs, 88:2, 33-48

Minzer, Carl

      2015 China after the Reform Era, Journal of Democracy, 26:3, 129-143

Willerton John P.,

      2015 “Russian Federation: Complexity and Uncertainty” In Comparative Governance, edited by Paulette Kurzer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015(and updated triennially since 1995, under former editorship of W. Philips Shively)