China has been busy rising, and an alarmed United States has been busy repositioning itself. Neither shows much interest in what is arguably the most important test now confronting China’s leadership, which is whether and how it will respond to internal pressures to democratize. Perhaps that is because neither realizes that how far China rises and what happens to U.S.-Chinese relations both depend more on the country’s democratization than on just about anything else.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is apparently so confident in its ability to deliver economic growth and the nation’s “great rejuvenation” that it has dispensed with the search for democratic legitimacy. The United States, having observed recent political developments in China, seems happy enough to follow the CCP in writing off the country’s democratic prospects. On this shared understanding, the supposed rivalry between China and the United States has taken on the dimensions of a contemporary Cold War.

The calculation seems to stand to reason. No one can plausibly argue that China is making democratic progress under Xi Jinping, whose administration has rolled back almost all of the proto-democratic steps of its predecessors, such as term limits on the office of the president and the division of functions between party and government. Observers of Chinese affairs have generally concluded that democratization has lost the momentum it once had, and that the wait for its resurgence—along with the policy of engagement that the United States once based on it—can be declared over.

But take a closer look. Focus not on China’s recent political trajectory but on the dynamic of its society. There one clearly discerns the shape of what Alexis de Tocqueville called a democratic social state—an entity distinct from a democratic political regime, but arguably as important.

How far China rises depends more on the country’s democratization than on just about anything else.

A democratic social state is one in which a historically fixed hierarchy has given way to formal equality of status and opportunity. Four decades of reform since the late 1970s have achieved something close to this in China. No longer is class a basis for the exclusion of masses of people (“class enemies”) from rights and benefits. Relations are growing ever more equal between men and women, parents and children, city and countryside—even, to a lesser degree, between rulers and ruled, although this last relation lies outside the strictest scope of “society.” None of these relations has yet become even nearly fully equal, but a passionate push to make them so is clearly driving social change.

Such change has brought de facto freedoms in the private sphere—one of the most powerful engines of China’s rise—and a formal equality of opportunity that are characteristically modern and bourgeois. Today’s virtually unlimited freedom of private enterprise, for example, would have been unimaginable in the 1970s, as would have been the exercise of consumer agency for which today’s middle-class Chinese are famous. At the same time, gender discrimination in education and employment is increasingly hard to practice openly and even harder to justify in terms admissible in public discourse.

The importance of the profound democratization of Chinese society cannot be overstated. “One has to understand,” Tocqueville famously writes in Democracy in America, “that equality [first developed in society] ends up by infiltrating the world of politics as it does everywhere else. It would be impossible to imagine men forever unequal in one respect, yet equal in others; they must, in the end, come to be equal in all.”

Tocqueville is careful to say “in the end,” likely meaning, “not necessarily immediately, but without indefinite delay.” For the mismatch between a democratic society and an undemocratic polity will give a divided character not only to a country’s normative order but also to the personality structure of its citizens. The longer this mismatch lasts, the more difficult it will be to maintain social stability and political legitimacy.

Chinese authorities are already paying a gargantuan material and psychological price just to keep the country stable and governable. That the present leadership encounters little resistance to its increased repression and blunt propaganda may indicate that it occupies a position of strength. But, equally, its willingness to use repression, even at the risk of encountering resistance, is a clear sign of its heightened anxiety. For an undemocratic political regime to manage a democratic society without compromise is an unnervingly tall order.


Some scholars argue that there is little reason to fear for the legitimacy of a ruling regime under such circumstances. They claim that with economic prowess and national rejuvenation, an atrophying communist system can sustain its legitimacy even when it governs an ever more bourgeois, democratic society. They are mistaken. Performance by itself does not confer legitimacy on a regime, so much as it helps to make its relative absence matter less. Such is increasingly the case in China today.

How much longer can the CCP hold on without democratizing? The short answer is: only as long as the current leadership is in charge, at best. Xi Jinping is an extraordinary leader in that he effectively keeps in check contradictions that would otherwise produce irresistible momentum toward fundamental change or collapse. Xi is able to do this not merely because he possesses special personal attributes but because he belongs to the last generation of leaders who can draw legitimacy from the communist revolutionary legacy. That legacy is one both of doctrine and of exceptional determination to keep the CCP in power at all costs, including the kind of cost incurred in June 1989.

Fireworks explode over Tiananmen Square as performers take part in the evening gala marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019.
Fesitvities in Tiananmen Square for the 70th anniversary of People's Republic of China, Beijing, October 2019
Reuters /Jason Lee

When Xi’s generation departs the political scene, the CCP will mark a watershed in its political evolution. Those who come after will be a different breed of leaders. They will not be able to maintain Xi’s level of control of the party, the military, the media, and the private sector. And what they will lack is exactly what will be necessary—what is now necessary—to keep the party united, the country stable, and democratizing forces at bay.

There is no reason to believe that political affairs will not resume their ordinary course in a post-Xi China. And an ordinary course entails, above all, that democracy reappear on the list of things that ordinary citizens can openly care about and peacefully strive for. The idea that the democracy project is dead and buried in China is as far-fetched as earlier expectations of a smooth-sailing democratic evolution. Indeed, the present leadership may be the last one capable of governing China with a reasonable degree of authority and stability in the absence of democratization.


China is far from ready for a democratic political system, even after four decades of profound democratic change within its society. The country does not have a democratic tradition that it can organically draw on as its own. Moreover, even in the reform era, Chinese citizens have never had the chance to develop the kinds of habits and civic skills that give a newly created democracy a reasonable chance of success: among these are respect for the rule of law, the willingness to compromise, and the capacity for self-restraint. China will need a substantial period of preparation for democracy—and it will need this well before dire necessity precipitates a democratic transition. Preparation of this sort requires strong leadership, for, as is well known, an autocratic system is liable to make itself dangerously vulnerable precisely when it undertakes reform.

For the current CCP leadership to assume such a responsibility would require both that it be aware that such preparation is necessary, and that it be willing to act. Even then, the process of democratic preparation and transition will not be easy. The party will therefore deserve encouragement and support, just as it will need persuasion and pressure if the requisite awareness and willingness are not forthcoming. Moreover, the CCP must somehow be persuaded and pressured to leave enough space for reasoned persuasion and peaceful pressure in the first place.

Those who advocate democracy must not pit their political cause against the CCP.

For all of these reasons, those who advocate democracy must not pit their political cause against the CCP. If democracy alone can save the Chinese government, providing it with a new legitimacy to replace the no longer plausible communist one, then only the CCP is capable of steering China toward democracy. That the CCP is indispensable because it has not allowed any other group to acquire the political capacity and experience necessary for governing a country as large and complex as China is not to its credit. All the same, this indispensability is now an objective constraint that cannot be circumvented.

Nor do foreign actors have any good reason to undercut the CCP, as they stand to benefit from a stable and prosperous China. Attempts to weaken or embarrass the party in the name of supporting democratic causes, whether in Hong Kong or mainland China, are less likely to help than to hinder democratization. Such attempts may signal moral support, say, to segments of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, but in so doing they risk putting off many more Chinese who are otherwise America-friendly and pro-democracy, and without whose support democratic reform in Hong Kong is unlikely to get very far. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, if passed and signed into law, is almost certain to have this effect.

Among the legions of ordinary Chinese who both cherish their country and support democracy, high-handed pressure from foreign powers will almost certainly produce a defensive impulse to put nation before democracy. Similarly, the escalation of hostility between China and the United States is sure to stir up nationalism. There is nothing like nationalism pitted against a democratic hegemon to dampen democratic sentiments. Whose purposes, exactly, does this dynamic serve?


China’s need for democratization is fundamentally endogenous: China’s own reform has created a largely democratic society without a complementary democratic polity, and the mismatch will eventually require that the state democratize in order to preserve its legitimacy.

The most effective argument for democracy must be one that is prudential, making clear to China’s rulers and citizens that, and how, democracy is a necessary and beneficial means to their own ends. Such an argument is more effective than one that attempts to show what is morally desirable about democracy in itself. In the real world, democracy makes better sense, to invoke Immanuel Kant’s well-known distinction, as a hypothetical imperative than a categorical one.

If China fails to answer the call of democracy, it may well fail as a state.

China could falter badly in the foreseeable future if it does not democratize, and it may be unable to democratize successfully if it does not start democratic preparation well within the current administration. There is no surer recipe for a major legitimation crisis than to prolong by repression a mismatch between a democratic society and an undemocratic political regime. The repressive measures require an exceptionally determined leadership, but the conditions for reproducing such leadership will disappear before very long.

Democratization alone is capable of making the political system accord with the new balance of power between rulers and ruled that will prevail by the time of the next leadership succession. If China fails to answer the call of democracy between now and then, it may well fail as a state—even if, one hopes, the failure will not amount to collapse. China will not rise much longer or much further without significantly democratizing in the process.

Recent events in Hong Kong fit well into such a projection. A nondemocratic China has great difficulty in matching its rising power with moral and political appeal. For this reason, foreign powers believe they can legitimately lend moral support to Hong Kong’s antigovernment protests, and the protesters—not least the violent ones—are emboldened to fight on. The domestic balance of power is thus decisively altered. Moreover, because of Hong Kong’s special status vis-à-vis the United States, China has to be cautious about applying repressive measures, with the result that even maintaining social stability and normal administration in the city is proving an intractable challenge. The near impotence of the Chinese state in the current crisis shows in no uncertain fashion that a nondemocratic political identity is the Achilles heel of an otherwise strong and rising China.

Under the circumstances, the apparent rivalry between China and the United States is misconceived. The United States need not fear China’s further rise as a so-called authoritarian capitalist state. Such progress is unlikely, and China is likelier to rival the United States for global leadership if it resolves its internal contradictions by democratizing. China, for its part, should not take America’s strategically motivated support for democratic causes as a reason to balk at democratization. Continued repression will only erode the freedoms that have helped make all the advances of the reform era possible.

China’s failure to democratize would be a gift to the United States.

A Chinese failure to democratize will hurt the interests of foreign capital, not least American capital. But ultimately that failure would be a gift to the United States, in that it would take China out as a potential long-term peer competitor. The interests and motives on both sides are far from transparent—even to the actors themselves unless they are prepared to think straight. The recrudesce of the Cold War between the two countries has no rational basis in the reality of those interests and motives properly understood. To form a view of China, and of U.S.-Chinese relations, on the basis of China’s recent, superficial political behavior is shortsighted. To have such a view inform policy can be dangerous.

Let China democratize for its own reasons and at its own chosen pace, if it has the vision and prudence to do so. Let the United States strike, in its disposition toward China’s democratization or absence thereof, what balance it will between the interests of American capital and the objectives of the American state. But let neither labor under—still less act prematurely and precipitously on—the illusion that what is taking place between the two nations is already a bona fide rivalry whose outcome will shape the twenty-first century. For this to happen, China must first show itself capable of rising to its domestic democratic challenge.

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  • JIWEI CI is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and the author of the forthcoming Democracy in China: The Coming Crisis.
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