Do you really want a democratic China?

posted at 1:01 pm on November 24, 2012 by Jazz Shaw

This popped up in the headlines section earlier, but given current events it’s certainly something to consider as we wrestle with foreign policy questions in the coming months and years. Jan Hornat put forward the idea that Chinese democracy as a political model for the world’s other economic superpower probably wouldn’t be any better than the Guns and Roses album of the same name. Or, as she put it, Chinese Democracy is No Goal.

Democratization would upgrade China’s political power and credibility in the international community. The United States and the European Union would forego the leverage of confronting China about its policies, as China’s laws would be the result of a popularly elected government.

New problems, which could destabilize democracy, might appear. For example, would Tibet and Xinjiang attempt to breakaway? How would privatization of state firms and redistribution of land proceed? What would North Korea do in the midst of losing its only ally? If Chinese democracy could not meet growth rates of authoritarian China, how would the Chinese public react?

Like Western-style democracies, a democratic China may repudiate its non-interventionist doctrine and be more assertive in pursuit of its interests. How would the United States react to a Chinese “coalition of the willing”? Democratic or not, China would still depend on a growing amount of natural resources and territorial disputes in the South China Sea would continue to disrupt regional security.

First of all, I don’t think we’re in any imminent “danger” of China suddenly experiencing a popular uprising and turning democratic. If it didn’t happen after Tiananmen Square, it doesn’t look like it’s going to come about in the next generation. Also, the Chinese government has been extremely effective for many decades in keeping a sufficient number of the correct people completely beholden to the interests of the state and dependent upon its largess. Their control of the flow of information to the masses outside of the major cities also keeps them in a fairly secure position.

But the warnings cited about China can, in a larger sense, be transferred to any number of places around the globe. If the past decade has shown us anything, it should be that democracy isn’t a plant which grows equally well in all soils. And even when it does seem to pop up – either on its own or through intervention – it has a propensity to grow a bit wild, in hard to predict fashions. We ostensibly have an elected democracy in Iraq now, but it still manages to bear very little resemblance to Texas, oil supplies aside. “The people” rose up in Egypt recently to oust a dictator and take back the power for the great, unwashed masses. How’s that working out so far? I seem to recall somebody from the previous President’s administration saying something about democracy being “messy” …

Democracy simply for democracy’s sake isn’t much of a goal if history is to be any guideline. And China is a huge, complicated and frankly dangerous puzzle. At this point a stable China is, as I see it, a far preferable option compared to the alternative. We need to keep a close eye on them, but their future is in their own hands.


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