A young unemployed market trader sets himself ablaze, sparking unrest that ends the twenty-three year reign of Tunisia’s authoritarian President. A middle-class Facebook campaign topples Hosni Mubarak, ending his thirty years of iron-fist rule in Egypt. Yet, last week, the world’s largest communist dictatorship – China – quietly overtook democratic Japan to become the second biggest economy in the world, destined according to some to catch America within a decade. Is Chinese democracy inevitable, as Bill Clinton quipped fourteen years ago, or can the Communist Politburo buck the call of history?
Last year Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, called for China to ‘resolve the issue of the excessive concentration of unrestrained power’, allowing ‘the people to criticise and supervise the government’. In reality, China has become more heavy-handed. A ‘tenure’ system to make party hacks more accountable to local people has fizzled, while the experiment with greater ‘village’ democracy led to soaring numbers of rural protests.
Hopes the Olympics would incentivise greater respect for basic human rights proved forlorn. Chinese security forces deployed live ammunition against Tibetan protesters in 2008, while those detained were subject to electric shocks and other torture. A spate of disappearances was documented in China’s restive Xinjiang province in 2009, while Amnesty reported the sweeping up of activists to muzzle dissent during the games themselves. Last December, literary critic and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, was unable to accept his award, because he is serving an 11 year sentence for ‘incitement to overthrow state power.’
Nor is such ruthlessness confined to domestic policy. From Chinese-run Zambian mines to military support for Sudanese repression in Darfur, China is accused of running rough-shod over human rights to deepen its commercial foothold across this vulnerable continent.
But will any of this hamper China’s economic ascent?
Not according to the growing orthodoxy. Academic and journalist, Martin Jacques, predicts: ‘China’s rise signals the end of the global dominance of the west’; Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson, claims we are witnessing the ‘end of 500 years of Western predominance … this time the Eastern challenger is for real’; while Financial Times commentator, Gideon Rachman, argues: ‘Sheer size and economic momentum mean that the Chinese juggernaut will keep rolling forward, no matter what obstacles lie in its path’.
While China’s ruling party has proved adept at taking long-term decisions, like investment in infrastructure, its rigidity prevents it from adapting to fluid and unforeseen pressures – most notably responding constructively to reasoned dissent to the Politburo’s master-plan. These are not bumps on the rough road to prosperity. China’s internal contradictions threaten economic under-achievement, social unrest and political turmoil. As George Kennan famously observed of the Soviet Union in 1947, Chinese power ‘bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.’
China’s political system risks becoming the victim of its own economic success. Euromonitor, a global research company, estimate the Chinese middle class is set to surge from a socially marginal 80 million in 2007, to 700 million by 2020 (around half the population). With commercial clout, the rising professional classes will expect a stronger political voice, challenging the status quo.
An even bigger threat to communist legitimacy comes from the widening poverty gap. According to the United Nations human development index (2008), life expectancy in Guizhou is a decade shorter than in Beijing, child mortality in Qinghai seven times as high as the capital, and illiteracy in Gansu five times more common. According to the Gini coefficient, a measure of income distribution, China’s poverty gap has reached 0.5 – with 0.4 or more widely regarded as a trip wire for social instability. China sees the threat. According to the state-run Global Times, the government now spends more on maintaining social stability than on national defence.
Demographic change will add to this social pressure cooker. As a result of the one-child policy, China’s population will lose 20 million people every five years from 2050. In 2010, China had 5.4 workers to support each retiree – by 2050 there will be just 1.6. An inter-generational battle for resources looms on the horizon.
Even sceptics about the relationship between democracy and development predict tectonic change. Development economist, Paul Collier, argues that democracy is dangerous for the poorest countries, but equally that autocracies get more dangerous as they get richer. Based on statistical analysis, he reckons China’s ‘spectacular economic growth is now making it more prone to political violence unless it democratizes’.
Each of China’s restive provinces add to the centrifugal forces threatening one-party rule. If China tolerates democratic perks in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it will struggle to resist them in Tibet and Xinjiang. If it resorts to brutal violence, as against Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist monks, it will stoke regional grievances spreading wider dissent.
Corruption remains one of the most tangible and hated symptoms of communist rule. Over the last ten years, China has languished between 3.2 and 3.6 on Transparency International’s corruption rankings (1 the grubbiest, 10 the cleanest), while cack-handed attempts to gag transparency, like censoring Google, exact both an economic and political price.
China has choices. It can continue to sprint ahead economically. It can keep a lid on social tensions. It can maintain authoritarian rule. But, it can’t do all three. Two years ago, President Hu Jintao said of the Communist Party: ‘centralism and unity are the guarantee of its strength’. In reality, those internal contradictions are the seeds of its own decay.