Features | Politics | East Asia

What China Can Learn from Thailand

The Thai opposition’s election triumph should act as a warning to China’s leaders – they resist political change at their peril.

By Daniel Lynch for

During a visit to Beijing in early May, I was struck by the large number of Chinese academics who predicted that the ‘tension’ between state and society would be the most important problem facing China in the coming decade. Intellectuals have often criticized the party-state, while elements of urban society occasionally exploded in dramatic demonstrations. But both proved ineffective in convincing Communist Party elites to pursue political reform. Indeed, such outbursts seemed to harden the elites against reform.

Perhaps they calculated that economic growth and the cultivation of nationalism would suffice to neutralize calls for change. Yet economic growth and proliferation of the communication channels necessary for cultivating nationalism also mobilize society into political action by changing the mind-sets and interests of its members. The Chinese academics I spoke with in May all recognize that this is a point China has now reached in its history. People from all segments of society are richer than ever before, but also better educated and more aware of social problems such as inequality, corruption, and pollution. They connect the dots and understand how these problems all have human causes. They have well-developed sociological imaginations that are increasingly critical, and they are now pressuring the party-state.

Yet the party-state obstinately holds fast against change.

Thailand reached a similar point sometime in the 1990s. The two countries are different in many ways. But even if at slightly less than 70 million people, Thailand is about the size of a Chinese province – and has never been ruled by a communist party – it has much to teach Chinese elites about the risks entailed in resisting political change. 

The resounding victory of Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party in last weekend’s general election should be studied carefully by Chinese political strategists for clues about what happens when even mildly authoritarian states try to resist fundamental political change. In a climate of socioeconomic mobilization, they eventually fail – or else accumulated tensions start damaging the economy while trapping the political system in repeated crises.

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The point isn’t that Pheu Thai represents the forces of democracy in Thailand while the outgoing Democrat Party represents authoritarianism – that would be a grossly inaccurate characterization. Pheu Thai is in some ways democratic – it and its antecedents have regularly won elections, for example – but in other ways (as we know from Thaksin Shinawatra’s rule in 2001 to 2006) it is authoritarian-populist. Pheu Thai leaders have also been associated with violence, notably during last spring’s mayhem in Bangkok, in which Red Shirt protestors – allied with the Pheu Thai – welcomed into their ranks well-trained thugs who shot and killed military officers using high-powered rifles, while also planting bombs and burning buildings throughout the city. Pheu Thai’s predecessor party, the Thai Rak Thai, showed a violent streak as early as 2003, when Thaksin launched a war on suspected drug dealers that led to nearly 2,500 people being killed extra-judicially in just three short but bloody months.

When elements of the Thai military staged the coup that overthrew Thaksin in September 2006, many democracy-supporting people in Thailand cheered. They had come to see the elected Thaksin as determined to revive an even more potent form of authoritarianism rooted in ecstatic popular support – the kind of support that the Democrats, though generally committed to democracy themselves, could never generate.

Soon, however, Thailand’s democracy activists became disenchanted with the post-2006 order as the military and its conservative allies in the palace and bureaucracy began overplaying their hand: trying to set the clock back constitutionally to the mid-1990s or even earlier. Conservative groups schemed to ensure that popular forces would never again be in a position to take control of, and direct, the Thai political system. They attempted a kind of restoration – but Thai society had changed too much to allow it.

For generations, poor people from the North and Northeast had been migrating to Bangkok to work. By the 1990s, they could much more easily shuttle back and forth from the capital to their home provinces thanks to the well-functioning air, rail, and road networks built in recent decades. Mobile telephone services arrived in the 1980s, and the Internet a decade later. The economy boomed until 1997, and then resumed growing rapidly in 1999. Thaksin arrived on the scene to fuse the new politics of the 1990s, rooted in social mobilization, with the old politics of patron-client ties that flourished, particularly outside of Bangkok. It was a winning combination, and now with Sunday’s victory, the exiled leader might soon be in a position to return to Thailand.

If he does, then those same democrats who opposed him in 2001 to 2006 for fear he would put in place a super effective new authoritarian populist regime that could lock down power for decades would likely come out in force again, especially if they calculated that the new order would start threatening the position of the monarchy. The cycle of demonstrations and suppressions, punctuated by violence, would then resume, dragging down economic growth and causing people to question Thailand’s future.

Patriotic elites in the Chinese Communist Party would obviously hate to see an analogous scenario unfold in China. Yet this is exactly what they court by indefinitely postponing political reform. Pushback from mobilized groups in society seems a certainty. China in the 2010s is a changed country, thanks to decades of economic growth, communication development, expansion of higher education, and internal migration. Refusing to pursue political reform in these circumstances would encourage the appearance of increasingly radical views among some members of society and increasingly sharp criticism of the party-state. People now have a nuanced understanding of repression, and this understanding makes them slightly less afraid of it. They perceive the repression as corrupt and unjust, while  increasingly seeing China’s successes as having resulted not from the wise leadership of the Communist Party so much as the hard work of Chinese people.

Some say that China still isn’t ready for political reform, and that pursuing it could itself set in motion complex processes that could spin out of control. This argument isn’t entirely unreasonable. Something as radical as a sudden, one-off democratization could indeed create enormous problems before things eventually settled down. 

But no one expects this anyway. The core problem is that the CCP refuses even to set democratization as an eventual goal and go ahead and start the processes that would eventually lead to it. If China isn’t ready yet, then clearly what the party-state needs to do is start taking the steps necessary to make it ready. This is what is missing – and the CCP has in fact intensified repression in recent months. 

Eventually, though, the new forces created by socioeconomic change will find outlets for their energies. Such a phenomenon has clearly taken shape in Thailand, a country in which most of the significant groups in politics now at least have to submit their proposals to democratic ratification. Is it credible to imagine that China, in contrast, can remain dynamic in the years ahead while still refusing to pursue political liberalization?

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Daniel Lynch is a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.  He is also a member of USC’s US-China Institute.