Democratize or Die

Why China's Communists Face Reform or Revolution

In 2011, standing in front of the Royal Society (the British academy of sciences), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao declared, "Tomorrow's China will be a country that fully achieves democracy, the rule of law, fairness, and justice. Without freedom, there is no real democracy. Without guarantee of economic and political rights, there is no real freedom." Eric Li's article in these pages, "The Life of the Party," pays no such lip service to democracy. Instead, Li, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, declares that the debate over Chinese democratization is dead: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will not only stay in power; its success in the coming years will "consolidate the one-party model and, in the process, challenge the West's conventional wisdom about political development." Li might have called the race too soon.

Li cites high public approval of China's general direction as evidence that the Chinese prefer the political status quo. In a country without free speech, however, asking people to directly evaluate their leaders' performance is a bit like giving a single-choice exam. More rigorous surveys that frame questions in less politically sensitive ways directly contradict his conclusion. According to 2003 surveys cited in How East Asians View Democracy, edited by the researchers Yun-han Chu, Larry Diamond, Andrew Nathan, and Doh Chull Shin, 72.3 percent of the Chinese public polled said they believed that democracy is "desirable for our country now," and 67 percent said that democracy is "suitable for our country now." These two numbers track with those recorded for well-established East Asian democracies, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

There are calls for more democracy in China. It is true that the party's antireform bloc has had the upper hand since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But recently, voices for reform within the CCP have been gaining strength, aided in large part by calls for honesty, transparency, and accountability from hundreds of millions of Internet-using Chinese citizens. China's new leaders seem at least somewhat willing to adopt a more moderate tone than their predecessors, who issued strident warnings against "westernization" of the Chinese political system. So far, what has held China back from democracy is not a lack of demand for it but a lack of supply. It is possible that the gap will start to close over the next ten years.

THE NOT-SO-GREAT WALL

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