The Hong Kong protests pose an obvious existential crisis for Beijing. As the author Ma Jian wrote in the Guardian they have built into “an unstoppable river of democracy” bound for the mainland. Water however does not flow uphill, and the mainland is notoriously arid. Whether or not Hongkongers will achieve their aims and what effect this will have on the mainland, even in the long term, is uncertain. The question this begs however is whether or not the mainland should become a democracy.
Democracy is superior to authoritarianism in many ways. Aside from giving every citizen a voice and the dignity conferred by universal suffrage, it is incomparably more stable. Evidence for which can be seen by the amount of money pouring into the U.K., U.S. and Australia from China, Russia and the Middle East. The two most common arguments against Chinese democracy ring hollow. India is comparably large and is one of the world’s most robust democracies, and those who claim Chinese culture is somehow incompatible with democracy conveniently ignore Taiwan.
However, if you look at the present record of this century’s new democracies, the picture is not a rosy one. Russia, nominally democratic, recently annexed Crimea. Other central Asian nations, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, who protestors looked to so hopefully 25 years ago from Tiananmen, are kleptocratic nightmares. Iraq, which the U.S. spent trillions democratizing, is a basket case. The Arab spring, the great hope for democratizers the world over, has in reality been the greatest advertisement for the longevity of the CCP.
The problem is not democracy itself. The problem is that in the West we conceive of democracy as part of an inherently liberal tradition. The 21st century has, however, shown democracy proliferating, but constitutional liberalism diminishing. What this has created is a plethora of states with democratic legitimacy, but free from the constraints that constitutional liberalism implies.
Without independent judiciaries, a free press, or adequate separation of powers, the leaders of these states, buoyed by popular sovereignty, are liable to excess. Take Russia as a pertinent example. Russia is a democracy, and Putin has an 80 percent approval rating. (By contrast, Obama’s is well below 50 percent.) Yet Russia is 148th on the Reporters Without Borders freedom of the press index, it has a conviction rate that hovers around 99 percent, and it is ridden with corruption.
There is no reason to believe China wouldn’t elect its own Putin. Given the choice, the Chinese people could opt for a government much like the CCP it already has, and would confer on it the kind of legitimacy the current regime can only dream of enjoying.
With the proper institutions, this entity could be fettered and citizens protected, but no freshly elected government is benign or altruistic enough to impose them itself. In Britain democracy emerged only after liberal institutions were well in place. Under colonialism Britain managed to export these liberal institutions across the globe, but without the democracy that we presently see as contingent.
It is for this reason that some of the world’s most successful democracies, such as Canada and Australia were former colonies. Their institutions were given time to cement and bed in, before the onslaught of democracy could distort the political process with false legitimacy. In Japan and Korea the emergence of constitutional institutions predated the shift towards democracy. Again it was the existence of a strong state to build these institutions that prevented these countries from devolving into the electoral autocracies we see elsewhere.
China is the opposite of an illiberal democracy. It is a liberalising autocracy. It is widely understood that for China’s grand bargain with its citizens to continue the economy needs rebalancing towards qualitative rather than quantitative growth. This involves sweeping away corruption, a task Xi Jingping has applied himself to with great zeal. It involves strengthening the rule of law, which is the focus of the fourth plenum in October, and it will involve deshackling the press.
China has a long way to go to with these aims, and they will take intense will and political capital, both of which are in scarce supply. However, the contemporary Chinese state as we know it has barely existed 30 years, and is capable of ruthless efficiency. Britain took centuries to build these institutions. Without them China is increasingly likely to collapse under its own contradictions, so their growth is in many senses inexorable.
The unstoppable river of democracy will one day weave its way to Beijing, but without stable institutions the water may prove undrinkable.
Barclay Bram Shoemaker is a Shanghai-based writer.