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China, more prosperous and autocratic

On December 3, political scientist Minxin Pei delivered the 17th annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World. Pei’s lecture, “Totalitarianism’s Long Dark Shadow Over China,” was presented by the Embassy of Canada to the United States and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
By Greg Ross

China, more prosperous and autocratic

Pei, the Pritzker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, presented prospects for democratization of the modern Chinese state. He referred to the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset (1922–2006), whose scholarship on democracy has become an influential reference in social science. Lipset’s 1959 thesis, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” argues that economic modernization creates favorable conditions for democracy.

Since China’s economic liberalization in 1979, the country has averaged annual economic growth of nearly 10 percent, lifting more than 850 million people from poverty along the way. Although growth slowed over the last several years, the country has experienced “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history,” according to the World Bank. 

“Today, as China has economically prospered, but retained its one-party regime, many are questioning whether the palliative relationship between modernization and democracy remains valid,” Pei began. In China, Lipset’s theory—“the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances it will sustain democracy”—appears to falter in the face of a more prosperous, but increasingly autocratic state.

Yet for Pei, Lipset’s theory can “still help illuminate the puzzle” of why democratization has not accompanied economic development in China. Pei argued that the democratization of communist dictatorships “poses unique challenges,” as the legacies of totalitarianism impose a “long, dark shadow.” Lipset, too, connected regime types and democratization, and his later work examined the difficulties of institutionalizing democracy when power and wealth become highly concentrated in the state.

Pei outlined China’s transition from Maoist rule in 1979 to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Deng Xiaoping, who “made a strategic choice” to conserve one-party rule through economic reform. Since, under the “neo-Stalinist” rule of Xi Jinping, the CCP has further concentrated state power in its adhesion to a “legacy of totalitarianism.”

These “legacies of totalitarianism,” argued Pei, “blunt and neutralize the democratizing effects of economic modernization.” The CCP has been able to control state media and maintain the allegiance of elites, while keeping civic organizations in line to prevent a groundswell of support for political liberalization. A sizable portion of an increasingly large middle class (which grew, by some estimates, from 3 percent to over half of the population since 2000) has remained dependent on the state, which directly or indirectly employs much of the professional and skilled sectors. A dominant party apparatus increased domestic security spending eightfold between 2002 and 2018, and the CCP continues to invest in the surveillance state.

Pei also explained how entrenched interests use the weight of the party state to resist democratization, since reform threatens their political and economic privileges. The lack of political reform “raises the risks of reversion to strongman rule,” as seen under Xi’s increasing concentration of power. In the 1980s, Deng pursued reforms to strengthen collective leadership and term limits, aiming to avoid autocratic rule in the future. However, shortcomings have become evident in the years since, as shown by Xi’s easy abolishment of term limits for the presidency in 2018.

According to Pei, the implementation of broader political reforms, like establishing an independent judiciary and other “credible third-party enforcers,” was never permitted in post-Mao China, given the dangers posed to one-party rule. Yet Pei pointed to the lack of reform under Xi as a potential danger to the staying power of one-party rule itself: “Paradoxically,” the reversion to neo-Stalinism “will likely weaken, rather than strengthen one-party rule.” Xi may encounter the “pitfalls of strongman rule”: a lack of diverse viewpoints, heightened risk taking, and an inability to correct mistakes. Xi’s lifelong rule could also create a succession struggle and motivate him to install weak loyalists as successors.

Another possible pitfall is Xi’s strategic, resourced campaign to grow China’s geopolitical footprint, as encapsulated by the Belt and Road Initiative. According to Pei, China’s growing global ambitions are an “untimely” and “premature” overreach. But since China’s overseas influence has become associated with Xi personally, Xi would likely see a geostrategic retreat as an indictment of his own leadership. Moreover, if economic decoupling with the United States continues, China could face increasingly costly strategic competition, especially if the U.S. rallies allies to the cause.

Pei concluded by betting on “an opportunity to reconfirm Professor Lipset’s modernization theory.” Around 2035, perhaps near the end of Xi’s rule, socioeconomic conditions in China could become more favorable to democratization. Pei noted that a modest economic growth rate of 3 percent through 2035 would raise per capita income to at least $25,000, while an increase of over 100 million college graduates during the same period would raise the college-educated share of society to 20 percent. As a result, the next couple decades present new possibilities that China’s transition from Maoist totalitarianism to Xi’s neo-Stalinism “will merely delay, but not prevent, a rendezvous with its democratic future.”

Greg Ross is CADAL's Institutional Relations Assistant in the United States.

Greg Ross
Greg Ross
Graduate student at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He is a Research Assistant for the Argentina Project at the Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former Fulbright scholar in Paraguay and former intern at CADAL. He graduated from Chicago University in 2018.

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