Is democracy in China’s future?

Posted: December 5, 2013 at 11:10 am, Last Updated: December 5, 2013 at 11:20 am

US democracy arose in a federalist context; as part of a social contract it secured the consent of the states to join the union. Two other enduring democracies share this precondition: the Europe Union, whose leadership, determined by an electoral system, ensures rotation among equals; and the Indian republic formed in 1947, which faced similar incentives to guarantee power rotation, and thus consensus from local elites, to join the larger federal unit.

However, the case for an enduring electoral democracy in the United States, Europe, and India was a solution to a problem that China does not share. In its trajectory toward national unification China was confronted by very different imperatives. Its unity does not depend upon gaining consensus of regional elites by offering competitive elections among candidates that hail from diverse jurisdictions. The promise of power rotation that is essentially in a consensual federalist union plays little role in China’s case. Its unified empire was established through the rule of a single dynasty, a marvel of history never replicated in South Asia or in Europe. The dynasty ruled at the pinnacle of a system of subordinate landlords and officials who ran the central state administration.

Chinese civilization owes most of its accomplishments to this system of central authority. The bureaucratic machinery for managing the state and its economy gave China a standard of living none of its neighbors could rival—but whenever the lords grew powerful enough to act as independent local chiefs, China faced decline and chaos.

That centralized seat of power made power rotation safeguarded by national elections unnecessary for state unity—or for together securing China’s bid for global power.

Today the communist party validates single-party rule by asserting that this is the most effective and quickest way for China nation to attain status as great global power, an outcome that would be complicated by experimenting with national elections in a multiparty system. The fear that multiparty democracy might impede China’s re-emergence as a great power makes single-party national unity a preferred option for much of the population.

Write to aschappe at aschapp1@gmu.edu