Why isn’t China a democracy? And why do many Chinese people not want it to become one?
In the West where (openly) questioning the merits of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ is a taboo, we don’t often consider such questions.
When we do, we tend to focus on the purported superiority of technocracy. But my sense is that China’s communists find a different argument more compelling. This one focuses less on the strengths of their system, than the perils of adopting ours.
It is expressed well by the journalist Tim Marshall in his book ‘Prisoners of Geography‘. It examines how physical features like mountains, deserts, seas and the like drive foreign policy questions. In the chapter on China, he considers how its geography arguably necessitates China (or rather its government) to take apparently aggressive actions to protect its security. For example, its territorial waters do not give it a route to the open ocean that could not be cut off by the Americans and Japanese. So, it grabs islands outside this potential noose; the protestations of the Fillipinos and Vietnamese that the territory is their’s be damned.
More relevantly, for the discussion at hand, it concludes that it must retain control of its restive border regions. Tibetan independence might be nice for the Tibetans but it would be problematic for China. If Tibet is in Chinese hands then the Himalayas separate the Indian and Chinese militaries from each other. That makes a large-scale land war between the world’s two most populous countries virtually impossible. Which is just as well because they both claim parts of the other’s territory. Seen from Beijing, a free Tibet looks a lot like a potential route for a rival superpower into the Chinese heartland.
Marshall explains how these concerns foreign policy concerns affect assessment of China’s internal politics.
Such arguments can have greater merit than western liberals like me wish to admit. There are nations whose populations are so disparate, that a strong state is all that holds them together. Consider, for example, what happened to Yugoslavia in 1990s. A communist autocrat, Marshall Tito, held together federation of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Albanians and Slovenes. However, when both Tito and European communism died within a few years of each other, the regime fell. Democratic elections were held that brought to power nationalist politicians, who broke Yugoslavia up into its constituent parts. Those nationalisms pulled the nation apart. This was not to clean separation but a violent dismembering. The newly independent republics grappled for territory, and often asserted control over it with brutal campaigns of ‘ethnic cleansing’. By the time the fighting subsided, one hundred and forty thousand people were dead, and four million were displaced.
This kind of argument does also get made for countries like: Afghanistan, Congo and Iraq.
However, its relevance to China is limited, which is not a fragile nation created in modern times by a colonial power or nationalist ideologues. Rather it is a genuine nation-state anchored in two millenia of history. It has not always had the same borders as the modern-day PRC but something recognisable as China has existed for more than two millenia. It is, therefore, not plausiable that its existence depends on the Communist Party, which has existed for less than a century.
This deep heritage has gifted China, a unified national culture that woud be very hard to pull apart. For all that the Communist Party worries about restless minorities, the Chinese population is actually pretty homogenous. More than 90% of Chinese are from the majority Han. By contrast, the Tibetans and the Uighurs that so alarm the Party amount for barely 1% of the population. And the government is making a conscious effort to ensure that they become a minority even in Tibet and Xinjiang, and is encouraging the Han to move there. China also has a national lingua franca: Mandarin. A clear majority of Chinese speak it, and most of the other languages spoken in China are indistinguishable from Mandarin when written. Furthermore, China is one of the most secular countries in the world, so religion seems unlikely to become a focal point for sectarian divisions. In short, while there are real divisions in Chinese society, between rich and poor, and in particular between rich and poor regions, they seem unlikely to become the kind of intractable cleavages that destroyed Syria and Yugoslavia. Rather they are involve the kind of issues over which democracies can and do mediate their way to solutions.
Indeed, we might wonder if the Communist Party’s insistence on autocracy is promoting division rather than unity. Its interference in Hong Kong’s affairs – including kidnapping dissidents from within the city – has conjured a separatist movement into existence in the majority Han city. And the PRC’s autocracy does much to discredit the notion of reunification in Taiwanese eyes.
More broadly, it is hard to see an argument for why democracy could not work in China. As we’ve seen fears that a democratic China would be torn apart by internal divisions are disproportionate to the actual divisions within the country. The contention that political liberty would somehow turn toxic in the atmospher of Chinese culture, is flatly contradicted by Taiwan’s succesful transition to democracy. And the Chinese people are increasingly affluent and well-educated, both of which are factors associated with sustaining democratic government. Indeed, there are many example of open political systems operating succesfully in countries that are poorer and less united than China. Take, for example, India. It has maintained a democracy for sixty years, and in that time has gained rather than lost territory.
The upshot of this, is that if the Communist Party wishes to justify its continued rule, it has to make a positive case for autocracy. If it wishes to take away the Chinese people’s freedom, it has to give something back other than protection from phantom threats of national disintegration.