5 Ways China Could Become a Democracy
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5 Ways China Could Become a Democracy


Speculating about China’s possible political futures is an intellectual activity that intrigues some and puzzles many.  The conventional wisdom is that the entrenched Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so determined to defend and perpetuate its political monopoly, has the means to survive for an extended period (though not forever).  A minority view, however, holds that the CCP’s days are numbered.  In fact, a transition to democracy in China in the next 10 to 15 years is a high probability event.   What stands behind this optimistic view about China’s democratic future is accumulated international and historical experience in democratic transitions (roughly 80 countries have made the transition from authoritarian rule to varying forms and degrees of democracy in the past 40 years) and decades of social science research that has yielded important insights into the dynamics of democratic transition and authoritarian decay (the two closely linked processes).

To be sure, those believing that China’s one-party regime still has enough resilience to endure decades of rule can point to the CCP’s proven and enormous capacity for repression (the most critical factor in the survival of autocracies), its ability to adapt to socioeconomic changes (although the degree of its adaptability is a subject of scholarly contention), and its track record of delivering economic improvement as a source of legitimacy.

To this list of reasons why the Chinese people should resign themselves to decades of one-party rule will be a set of factors singled out by proponents of the theory of predictable regime change in China.  Among many of the causes of the decline and collapse of authoritarian rule, two stand out.

First, there is the logic of authoritarian decay.  One-party regimes, however sophisticated, suffer from organizational ageing and decay.  Leaders get progressively weaker (in terms of capabilities and ideological commitment); such regimes tend to attract careerists and opportunists who view their role in the regime from the perspective of an investor: they want to maximize their returns from their contribution to the regime’s maintenance and survival.  The result is escalating corruption, deteriorating governance, and growing alienation of the masses.  Empirically, the organizational decay of one-party regime can be measured by the limited longevity of such regimes.  To date, the record longevity of a one-party regime is 74 years (held by the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union).  One-party regimes in Mexico and Taiwan remained in power for 71 and 73 years respectively (although in the case of Taiwan, the accounting is complicated by the Kuomintang’s military defeat on the mainland).   Moreover, all of the three longest-ruling one-party regimes began to experience system-threatening crisis roughly a decade before they exited political power.  If the same historical experience should be repeated in China, where the Communist Party has ruled for 63 years, we may reasonably speculate that the probability of a regime transition is both real and high in the coming 10-15 years, when the CCP will reach the upper-limit of the longevity of one-party regimes.

Second, the effects of socioeconomic change –rising literacy, income, and urbanization rates, along with the improvement of communications technologies — greatly reduce the costs of collective action, de-legitimize autocratic rule, and foster demands for greater democracy.  As a result, authoritarian regimes, which have a relatively easy time ruling poor and agrarian societies, find it increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to maintain their rule once socioeconomic development reaches a certain level.  Statistical analysis shows that authoritarian regimes become progressively more unstable (and democratic transitions more likely) once income rises above $1,000 (PPP) per capita.  When per capita income goes above $4,000 (PPP), the likelihood of democratic transitions increases more dramatically.  Few authoritarian regimes, unless they rule in oil-producing countries, can survive once per capita income hits more than $6,000 (PPP).  If we apply this observation and take into account the probable effect of inflation (although the above PPP figures were calculated in constant terms), we will find that China is well into this “zone of democratic transition” because its per capita income is around $9,100 (PPP) today, comparable to the income level of South Korea and Taiwan in the mid-1980s on the eve of their democratic transitions.  In another 10-15 years, its per capita income could exceed $15,000 and its urbanization rate will have risen to 60-65 percent.  If the CCP has such a tough time today (in terms of deploying its manpower and financial resources) to maintain its rule, just imagine how impossible the task will become in 10-15 years’ time.

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!

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