5 Ways China Could Become a Democracy  (Page 2 of 3)

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.

Emelio Lizardo
January 7, 2014 at 11:00

[6] Falkland Isalands scenario. China invades Taiwan or absorbs Hong Kong by force. Pacific rim countries stand up and successfully blockade China. China elites go the way of Argentina.

Augustus Deleon Malagapi
January 6, 2014 at 16:41

“the record longevity of a one-party regime is 74 years”

Interesting. So the BN and the PAP are nearing their expiration date.

September 1, 2013 at 15:25

You obviously have no knowledge of history. Communism collapsed in the late 20th century because it is an unsustainable system. Biggest examples are the USSR and China, obviously. This means the capitalist US won the Cold War. Learn history.

June 29, 2013 at 18:57

US will become communist. capitalism is killing the world, democracy was never at odds with communism but capitalism.

May 18, 2013 at 19:37

As a native Chinese of age 21. I personally vote for “Financial meltdown”. It's a bad scenario, though. In late 1980, many young people believed in democracy but nowadays youth only cocern thier materialist life. pp in china don't have full understanding of the value of "western values". the new leadership seems no intent to run a real reform. I worry about my home country's prospect. “Financial meltdown” may be the final situation.

April 29, 2013 at 01:29

It is better off for experts like Mr. Pei and Mr. Chong to stick to one camp rather than try to be more neutral. The reality is probably a bit towards the middle, but it is up to the "been there done that" audience to decide.

April 19, 2013 at 15:28


April 11, 2013 at 15:09

I am chinese.I think i can meet that day but not now.You know chinese is a huge population country,i cant imagine what will happen if we become a whole democracy …

what do u think?

April 5, 2013 at 06:01

This Mr. Pei sound like Gordon Chong who wrote a book 20 years ago about the imminent implosion of China.   Events proved him totally at sea.  Gordon Chong is still around every year coming up with another statement why China is "now" really, really in trouble.  This Mr. Pei is creating job-security for himself seeing how Gordon Chong still finds CNN calling him an "authority". There is a lemmings rush of Jingo-controlled news organizations eager to amplify anything China does into cardinal sins, heinous massacres or aggression.  The last I checked of 10 Western giant news organizations’ Beijing Bureau Chiefs, only 3 had qualified facility in Chinese.  [1] Evolution of expression is what has happened in China.  During Deng's times it was always speculated by western "experts" that every transition in China would involve fratricides as in Soviet expression of Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin-Malenkov-Krushchev-Brezhnev-Gorbachev.  In fact the TianAnMen incident had the mixing of opportunists taking the student movement against corruption into a regime change.  The little appreciated fact is the soft power of Deng's personal wisdom, example and nurturing of a next generation leadership who, even now, are always asking "What would Comrade Xiaoping have liked us to do?"  Especially now, Xi Jinping represents a third generation after Deng and he is trying to revive that fantastic release of energy that Deng set in motion.  Pei is correct in saying that the people will seek greater and greater say and they are saying it more and more and the CPC is negotiating this new reform drive changing their formula and trying different models.  No one has mentioned a CPC relatively new custom called "Getting Scriptures".  What it is that the CPC has multiple levels of internal news bulletins that all leaders at each level are send every week.  So a particular city which has done something new and gets good results would be disseminated immediately all over China, and weaker cities' mayors or new mayors would plan on leading a team to go and visit that particular "poster child city" to learn their practices and try to bring their Scriptures back a templates for use in their home cities.  Thus the whole nation has a system of mechanisms to shifting directions at multiple levels.  Can you think of any Developed "Democratic" nation that has this system of mutual learning?  Imagine the new Mayor of Milwaukee taking 30 top city officials running off to New Orleans to embed for a week into their various department to note their every aspects, and then running off again to New Jersey again after a hurricane to learn disaster.

[2] Pei is warning that the citizenry will revolt.  All through the last 34 years there have been various local issues.  The CPC method was to make changes in numerous little ways without being doctrinaire about it.  They actually record all the protests track them nationally to current 100,000 incidents big and small so that they are mostly small.  The recent Wukan incident of the whole town rising up against unfair expropriation of land by large enterprises where the local chief called in 10,000 police and armed police to surround 10,000 active citizens.  Wang Yang the secretary of the Province sent in his duty and they defused the issue as the local chief being in the wrong.  This was judged as a "people's rights" local revolution in the traditional of peasants' revolt and that they were right to rise up.  Wang Yang was touted by western press as deserving of becoming one of the top 7.  He was not, but he is Vice Premier now and his replacement has also addressed another dispute in the press with the same open approach. That reflects the increasingly responsive measures of the CPC.  There is a line-up of young people competing to take exams to join the CPC and they pick the best and the brightest.  Xi has ratcheted up the call for anti-corruption and the netizens, in the majority in the general population have responded by posting their own investigation of official who are corrupt.  The Politburo and Cabinet have set an example of discipline from the top and it has shaken all levels of CPC.  Expensive seafood suppliers are seeing a dip in restaurant consumption as all official are responding to the new "clean government" drive.  The anti-corruption group is overwhelmed by applications for joining their "mission", or transfers to.  The have moved Wang Qishan, an economic problem solver to this powerful position to deal with corruption.

[3] Taking the TianAnMen incident of 22 years ago, Pei is biting it as a one-issue event and using it to describe a China that is the same as the times of 1989. The only issue from most of the critics of the CPC on this event is that it was sheer brutality of the evil CPC to destroy a Democracy Movement.  Without delving into the many shades of grey in that, the fact is China has evolved so much more in the last 22 years.  It was a very painful event for the leaders of China because the diddling and inaction let the situation changed from students raising anti-corruption issue, at first accepted by the elders, turning more and more aggressive into asking for the resignations of the Premier and cabinet.  Many of these kids were children of the party leaders.  That was how painful it became.  Therefore the CPC is still very sensitive to this event.  Because there were clear evidence of external agents in the square escalating, they are especially chagrined by the preachy West.  No way anyone can go back 22 years and create a new upheaval from it.

[4] Economic Collapse will cause the collapse of the CPC.  Yes agreed.  The big "IF" is Pei seems quite ignorant of the various gigantic restructuring programmes of China already started three years ago and already showing results. As Gordon Chong intimates, China's energy consumption was not in step with the 7.8% growth in 2012 and therefore the CPC must be lying.  For them to be lying, China must be suffering worse, rather than recovery from the rest of the world's financial problems.  For a deeper analysis, this lack of dramatic increase in energy usage is a dramatically positive sign that their massive focus on Energy Savings and New Renewable Energies is taking hold and accelerating. 

[5] Pollution is a major problem for China's environment.  In putting growth and industrialization as the first wave of priorities, they knew it was a sacrifice and trade-off versus staying in poor backwards status.  Those in the West in the environment industries will laugh at Pei's article because they are swamped by company executives, government environmental officials from China with massive amounts of money to spend on technology and solutions.  For example, on Coal-fire Power Plants, China mandated nearly a decade ago that catalytic converters must be installed on these plants to denitrify and desulferize their flue-gas.  It created a massive bonanza for engineering firms in China during two years.  GE, Alstom, ASEA, B&V made a killing without telling the world press. The giant ones have been retrofitted.  The smaller ones and older ones are now being fitted because Chinese factories have restructured and created their own units.  2012, China surpassed US as the world's #1 spender in green projects.  There are many issues of pollution, so has the world.


[...] vừa qua, đã có trên 80 quốc gia từ toàn trị tiến dần đến dân chủ, hoặc hoàn toàn dân chủ hoặc chỉ một phần dân chủ. Lý do cũng rất dễ [...]

[...] vừa qua, đã có trên 80 quốc gia từ toàn trị tiến dần đến dân chủ, hoặc hoàn toàn dân chủ hoặc chỉ một phần dân chủ. Lý do cũng rất dễ [...]

[...] vừa qua, đã có trên 80 quốc gia từ toàn trị tiến dần đến dân chủ, hoặc hoàn toàn dân chủ hoặc chỉ một phần dân chủ. Lý do cũng rất dễ [...]

petal rain
March 2, 2013 at 19:20

ROC has some merits for PRC to learn from in terms of political reforms, traditional culture maintenance and environmental policies. However one easily know two vital differences. In respect to breadth of actuall jurisdiction area and population (remind, PRC&ROC all claim sovereignty over the taditional China), they differ hugely. Blunt comparison of affluence level is of little use, let alone the different developmental scratches they began at (remember KMT brought gold and research elites to TW while tens of millions of poor unaducated peasants there in mainland). 

Secondly, international relationships for the newly-established red PRC were much perplexer and harder for it to deal with. In the context of cold war, PRC was sandwiched between two super powers and was made uneasy to relaxingly develop itself in this vicious atmosphere. In contrast, ROC definitely standed at US's side and played a simpler role as a strategic piece of the US by its design. ROC received plenty of funds and military aid from the US. Its geographically-decided status, i.e. island, isolated it from plagues of war. 

Another thing I want to advert is, TW's economic progress was mainly achieved during KMT's autocracy and nowadays development, in large scale, hinges on trades and communications with the mainland which are yet attacked by DPP of TW without rational reasons. Ironically, after its democratic transition, TW politics has been plunged into mud of blue-green polarization, which has stimulated ethnicity resentment and rejection (typically people from TW province with "foreign provinces", Taiwanese with Chinese, which is in principle inclusive). Populism, party's demagogic propagenda and irrational response make policy-making process difficult and its result partisan and near-sighted often. 

Although I' m not in favor of the current regime in PRC, I must clarify some facts about its governance. Ancient Chinese dynasties gained their legitimacy from Mandate of Heaven under which they also must take up responsabilities lest losing the Mandate, and people regarded their authorities as fathers and gave deference to them. It's in some degree alike today. What I want to say is the legitimacy of a non-democracy in China is more natural than in the West given its unique history and culture (yes, I'm against cultural-absolutism). What's more, people in PRC now have many freedoms  apart from some political ones. As for speech freedom, the boom of netizens has in some degree increased it. It's unfair to classify PRC as a unfree state.

I understand It's common for a westerner to think of PRC as a bad nation and a threat to world peace and liberty. I don't want to explain the inside psychology and preconceptions added, nor do I bother to suggest it's from someone's jealousy or some interest groups' conspiracy. My hope is that everyone can stop fancying and demonizing China and start receiving facts however revolting they are to you and deliberating conscientiously issues on China.

January 5, 2014 at 19:36

My man,
How old are you ?What do you know about China ancient history ? One can not help laughing to read this paragraph:
Ancient Chinese dynasties gained their legitimacy from Mandate of Heaven under which they also must take up responsabilities lest losing the Mandate, and people regarded their authorities as fathers and gave deference to them. It’s in some degree

petal rain
March 2, 2013 at 17:43

I agree with you. 

[...] 原文:5 Ways China Could Become a Democracy 作者:裴敏欣日期:2013/02/13由”譯者“志願者翻譯並校對,同時參考同源譯文。 [...]

February 22, 2013 at 16:21

chances are it will all work out that way

for world peace 's sake!

February 21, 2013 at 20:16

China if becomes a democracy, will succumb to pressure from its ultra nationalistic citizens. Beware of what you wish for.

February 21, 2013 at 11:36

If Taiwan and Japan are not one party state, neither is China.  You can also say that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are trying to help USA too!

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief