Democratizing one-party rule in China
Questioning the compatibility of economic liberalization with continued political illiberal authoritarian rule is not just a matter for academic debate; it has been a key concern of the Chinese leadership itself almost from the very start of the economic reform process in 1978. But despite the predictions of some theorists, this does not seem to emerge from a fear that a new middle class will rise to challenge the Party for political power – indeed, rather than fear the emergence of the middle class, the Party leadership wants as many Chinese as possible to join its ranks. This is partly because the emerging new rich classes in China are very close to the political structure (and often still part of it) and in many ways are beneﬁciaries of authoritarian rule. It is also because of the importance of patriotism/nationalism in contemporary Chinese politics, which not only legitimates those actions and policies that are portrayed as being in the national interest, but also leads to liberal democracy often being equated with foreign imperialism and hegemony. Rather, the concern for China’s leaders is that the growth of inequality,
corruption and environmental degradation could undermine the Party’s position. They are also aware that many Chinese are frustrated with the actions of individual local leaders, and of a fairly widespread popular assumption that party-state oﬃcials serve their own self-interest ﬁrst rather than serving the people. Since 2004 in particular, the need to reform to ensure regime stability if not survival has turned the focus on the importance of democratization. But in these Chinese discourses, the call for ‘democracy’ and ‘democratization’ do not refer to the move towards competitive multi-party democracy through which one-party rule is challenged. On the contrary, democratization is seen as a means of strengthening and re-legitimating one-party rule by creating a more transparent, open and consultative political system increasingly based on (and constrained by) legal structures. As such, this chapter focuses on the demand and supply of political reform
in China, and what it means for observers of democratization. It suggests that Fukuyama’s (1992: xiii) belief that ‘liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration’ may be mistaken. While it is diﬃcult to gauge the real demand for liberal democracy in China as those who demand it fall foul of the power of the state, it appears that the primary aspiration in China
is ‘the national project’ – restoring China to a perceived rightful position in the global order. The aspiration is for the emergence of indigenous forms of governance based on China’s unique circumstances that guarantee Chinese independence and facilitate national regeneration and resurgence. Of course, these ideas are not universally held, and the political system itself has done much to construct the way in which this aspiration has been construed. At the very least, we can say that the primacy of liberal democracy is challenged in contemporary China, and China’s resurgence is resulting in the questioning of the western model in other parts of the world.