Without Democracy, China Will Rise No Farther

Beijing Can’t Compete With Washington Until It Reckons With Its People

A Hong Kong protester steps on images of Xi Jinping, October 2019 Reuters / Athit Perawongmetha

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

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