If this analysis is convincing enough for us to entertain the strong possibility of a democratic transition in China in the coming 10-15 years, the more interesting follow-up question is definitely “how will such a transition happen?”
Again, based on the rich experience of democratic transitions since the 1970s, there are five ways China could become democratic:
“Happy ending” would be the most preferable mode of democratic transition for China. Typically, a peaceful exit from power managed by the ruling elites of the old regime goes through several stages. It starts with the emergence of a legitimacy crisis, which may be caused by many factors (such as poor economic performance, military defeat, rising popular resistance, unbearable costs of repression, and endemic corruption). Recognition of such a crisis convinces some leaders of the regime that the days of authoritarian rule are numbered and they should start managing a graceful withdrawal from power. If such leaders gain political dominance inside the regime, they start a process of liberalization by freeing the media and loosening control over civil society. Then they negotiate with opposition leaders to set the rules of the post-transition political system. Most critically, such negotiations center on the protection of the ruling elites of the old regime who have committed human rights abuses and the preservation of the privileges of the state institutions that have supported the old regime (such as the military and the secret police). Once such negotiations are concluded, elections are held. In most cases (Taiwan and Spain being the exceptions), parties representing the old regime lose such elections, thus ushering in a new democratic era. At the moment, the transition in Burma is unfolding according to this script.
But for China, the probability of such a happy ending hinges on, among other things, whether the ruling elites start reform before the old regime suffers irreparable loss of legitimacy. The historical record of peaceful transition from post-totalitarian regimes is abysmal mainly because such regimes resist reform until it is too late. Successful cases of “happy ending” transitions, such as those in Taiwan, Mexico, and Brazil, took place because the old regime still maintained sufficient political strength and some degree of support from key social groups. So the sooner the ruling elites start this process, the greater their chances of success. The paradox, however, is that regimes that are strong enough are unwilling to reform and regimes that are weak cannot reform. In the Chinese case, the odds of a soft landing are likely to be determined by what China’s new leadership does in the coming five years because the window of opportunity for a political soft landing will not remain open forever.
“Gorby comes to China” is a variation of the “happy ending” scenario with a nasty twist. In such a scenario, China’s leadership misses the historic opportunity to start the reform now. But in the coming decade, a convergence of unfavorable economic, social, and political trends (such as falling economic growth due to demographic ageing, environmental decay, crony-capitalism, inequality, corruption and rising social unrest) finally forces the regime to face reality. Hardliners are discredited and replaced by reformers who, like Gorbachev, start a Chinese version of glasnost and perestroika. But the regime by that time has lost total credibility and political support from key social groups. Liberalization triggers mass political mobilization and radicalism. Members of the old regime start to defect – either to the opposition or their safe havens in Southern California or Switzerland. Amid political chaos, the regime suffers another internal split, similar to that between Boris Yeltsin and Gorbachev, with the rise of a radical democratizer replacing a moderate reformer. With their enormous popular support, the dominant political opposition, including many defectors from the old regime, refuses to offer concessions to the Communist Party since it is now literally in no position to negotiate. The party’s rule collapses, either as a result of elections that boot its loyalists out of power or spontaneous seizure of power by the opposition.