Why has democracy failed to take hold in China?

Despite being the second wealthiest country in the world, China remains comfortably authoritarian — How?

Arthur Quayle
Sep 4, 2020 · 7 min read
Image from: Bharat Shakti

Democracy: a political system with that allows citizens to express their political preferences, has constraints on the power of the executive, and provides a guarantee of civil liberties.

The word Democracy comes from the Greek words dēmos “people” and krátos “power”: “the people hold power.”

According to Classic Economic Modernisation Theory, as a society develops economically, the values of people within that society gradually change from being focused on survival, to being more focused around self-expression. People need no longer focus on providing basic necessities and enter a period of post-materialism that champions concepts such as freedom and individualism. In addition, economic growth leads to wider socio-economic classes and a larger tax-paying middle class who require political recognition and representation (1).

As of 2019, China was the second wealthiest country in the world, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of over $14 trillion (2), yet its Democracy Index (DI) value is 2.26 (3); the 15th worst in the world and below countries like Iran. Why is this? When the other top six GDP countries rank in the top 25 for DI value.

This article aims to provide some insight into this.

Image from: The Economist

Ultimately, democracy is a system that must be chosen by the people. Unfortunately, within the past 20 years, the flaws of the Western democratic free market society have been laid bare for all to see.

The 2008 financial crisis exposed how unfettered greed within a free market economy can lead to an international economic crisis.

Populist movements throughout the US and Europe in the past decade has shown the instability of the democratic system. This harks back to the criticisms of democracy made by ancient Greek scholars such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. That allowing the “uneducated masses” to choose for themselves becomes very dangerous if they choose wrong, descending into little more than a “tyranny of the majority”.

Most recently, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Daniel Prude in the US have exposed systemic inequality, sparking unrest and international protest movements across the Western world.

Democracy, and the free market principles that come with it, must be chosen by the Chinese people. Throughout the past 20 years however, the Western system has been shown to be unstable at best. For most Chinese citizens, the risks are far too great and the rewards seemingly far too little.

Of course, we cannot pretend that even if the Chinese people did choose democracy, that the institutions of the Chinese state would allow it. Strict censorship, surveillance and controls mean that a democracy movement in China would be, one; difficult to rally, and two; almost impossible to keep hidden from persecution.

Of course, we have seen attempts to democratise China before. In 1989, among a wave of economic reform, student led pro-democracy protests gripped Beijing. Massive rallies were held at Tiananmen Square from mid-April to early June demanding political reform in the country. The protests ended on the 4th June, when martial law was declared and the army was sent in to break up the protests. When the dust settled a few days later, anywhere between several hundred, to up to 10,000 people lay dead (4).

Today the Tiananmen Square massacre is a sobering reminder of what happens to those who try to overthrow the Communist regime.

A protester defiantly blocks Chinese army tanks in the road leading to Tiananmen square; Image from: History

Prior to the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, China had experienced what its people call the “Century of Humiliation”. From 1839–1949 China was abused, exploited and subjected by the Western powers and Japan. The following are just two examples of this.

The Opium wars of 1839–1842 and 1856–1860 occurred when the Chinese government outlawed the highly addicted opioids that British traders had been getting China hooked on. The trade had been making the British huge amounts of money and they would not accept this financial loss, leading to them declaring war on China. Britain would defeat the technologically inferior Chinese forces within a few years. In the subsequent peace settlement China was forced to pay huge reparations, Western powers were given unequal trade rights and Britain was given Hong Kong.

In addition to the West, Japan was a key aggressor in China’s century of humiliation; seizing Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria off of China before going to war with them throughout WW2. In 1937 Japan committed one of the worst atrocities ever recorded against the then Chinese capital city of Nanjing. Nicknamed the “Rape of Nanjing”, over a six week period 300,000 citizens were murdered in an episode of mass murder and rape committed by Japanese troops against the residents of Nanjing.

China suffered immensely under the hands of the West and Japan, both now champions of the democratic system. When we understand the history behind China’s deep resentment of these powers, it is easier to understand why Chinese citizens aren’t so eager to throw in their lot with these countries.

When the CCP came to power in 1949, they promised to usher in a new era for China. 61 years down the line and China is the second most powerful country in the world, an economic giant and able to wield significant influence on the world stage. Ultimately, the Communist project has been an unrivalled success for the people of China. For a lot of Chinese citizens, people feel indebted to the Communist regime, it has brought them stability, growth and a renewed sense of national pride. They will not easily turn their back on a regime which has given them so much.

While China may be the second wealthiest country in the world by GDP, when analysing economic development, GDP isn’t the best measurement. GDP is the total value of goods and services produced in a country and as a producer economy, China’s GDP is inevitably high. However, this doesn’t express the wealth of the people at ground level.

Better measurements for assessing a country’s socio-economic development are GDP per capita, giving a rough idea of how wealthy citizens are on an individual level; or Human Development Index (HDI) value, the measurement the UN uses to assess socio-economic development.

In terms of GDP per capita, China ranks 87th, just above Argentina, Mexico and Bulgaria but below countries like Latvia, Romania and Chile (5). While this may go some way in explaining why China is not as developed as people might believe, it does not wholly explain why China has failed to develop into a democracy. After all, all of the aforementioned countries, even those less developed than China, have a far higher DI value than China. If we look at HDI values, the same story appears. China ranks 85th in the world, just ahead of Ecuador, but below countries like Algeria and Albania (6).

While among all of the mentioned countries China is still the least democratic, countries with development levels more in line with China’s are closer to its quality of democracy than the countries at the top of the GDP rankings. As stated however, China is still less democratic than many less economically developed nations, and this is where other factors come into play.

Image from: Reuters

It is the common belief in China that no non-Chinese person could ever hope to understand China, even some Chinese people don’t understand China. When we think, we think from a Western perspective, through a prism of what we know and understand. A prism of what we’re used to. In a society that values freedom, liberty and individualism democracy seems like an ideal system. But in a society that were to champion other values such as stability and order, is democracy so ideal?

Finally, I wish to leave you with one of my favourite quotes, that I believe summarises the political problems and key flaws of the West today (the US in particular) quite well.

‘Nor is there any kind of Government more deformed than that in which the wealthiest are regarded as the noblest’

Marcus Tullius Cicero, ancient Roman statesman and scholar.

De re publica, Book I, Chapter XXXIV.

(1) Lipset (1959) Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 53, №1, pp. 69–105.

(2) The World Bank — GDP (current US$)

(3) The Economist — Democracy Index

(4) BBC (2017) Tiananmen Square protest death toll ‘was 10,000’

(5) The World Bank — GDP per capita (current US$)

(6) UN Development Programme: Human Development Reports. Human Development Index (HDI). 2019 Human Development Data All Tables and Dashboards.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Arthur Quayle

Written by

Political writer with a focus on East Asia. Asian and International Studies (MA) student at the University of Nottingham. I also write for Evolv Ideas.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Arthur Quayle

Written by

Political writer with a focus on East Asia. Asian and International Studies (MA) student at the University of Nottingham. I also write for Evolv Ideas.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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