Democracy is Not Coming to China

This article was from Brandon J. Weichert’s weekly column at The Asia Times…

There is nothing in China’s history or culture to support utopian hopes of a democratic rebirth in the future

China is a successful, modern, and dynamic state. It is not a Western nation … and it likely will never be a democracy, as many utopian Western elites envisage. This has not stopped some of the most influential Western thinkers from believing that China has a democratic destiny. It doesn’t.

The Communist Party of China (CPC), under the draconian leadership of President-for-life Xi Jinping, has charted a long-term course for potentially dominating the 21st century in the same way that the United States ruled the 20th century. Suffice to say, the CPC isn’t planning on going anywhere or ceding any ground to Chinese democrats, no matter how much trade China engages in with the United States. 

Yet there remains a strain of thinking among Western analysts that questions the longevity of the CPC. These analysts dismiss the China 2049 plan and are ambivalent to the growing threat that Red China poses to the American-led world order. 

Let us first consider what might become of a democratic China. Certainly, it would have a better track record on human rights than the CPC does. Given China’s economic dynamism and its large population, a democratic China could become freer and more prosperous than it currently is. 

From an American perspective, though, a democratic China could be an even more serious challenger to US power than it is now. China possesses a highly educated, innovative population with a modern infrastructure. When paired with democracy, China might become the greatest power in the world: fulfilling the dreams of Chinese nationalists everywhere – all at America’s expense.

A more popular theory in the West is that the seeds of the CPC’s destruction can be found within the very structure of its regime, like the Soviet Union.

Of course, few in the West who believe the China-collapse theory acknowledge that it took almost a century for the Soviet Union to collapse. And, judging from the last few years here in the United States, one could say that the seeds of self-destruction are rooted deeply within all forms of political regimes – autocratic and democratic alike.

But let’s for a moment concede that China, like all countries, has problems and that those problems could devolve into regime-ending catastrophe. China certainly has its share of demographic concerns, environmental woes, income inequality, stifling ethnic division – the list goes on. 

In response, Xi Jinping has aggregated as much power toward himself as possible. When China succeeds under Xi’s reign, he is given the credit and his rule is reaffirmed. When something goes wrong, however, Xi gets the lion’s share of the blame – and his rule is threatened. 

To those Western analysts who subscribe to the China-collapse theory, the question should be: Which China will potentially collapse, China as ruled by Xi Jinping? The CPC? Or China as a nation? 

Xi Jinping’s rule could end badly, given how much exclusive responsibility he has taken on. The more power Xi takes for himself, the more likely cadres will form against him (some already have) as his failures mount. 

Sadly, that does not mean the CPC will end. And even if the CPC did collapse in the wake of Xi Jinping’s potential fall, it does not necessarily imply that a democracy would bubble up in the wake of any regime collapse. 

After all, from 2070 BC to AD 1912, a total of 13 different imperial dynasties ruled China. Never once did those dynasties come close to creating a democracy. 

And when the final imperial dynasty, the Qing, imploded, another dynasty did not rise to take its place. Instead, China balkanized into a land of competing warlords. Chaos and civil war reigned for decades. Once the mess was sorted out, the CPC, a regime that is far closer to the centralized dynasties of old than to any democracy, won the day.

That same pattern is far likelier to play out in a post-CPC China than anything Western fantasists have concocted. 

The fact is, the China-collapse theory is deeply rooted in the 1990s. At that time, the United States had vanquished the USSR in the Cold War. There were no major threats to America then. 

Fashionable theories about America’s victory representing the “end of history” were ubiquitous, and often misunderstood by those who embraced such theories. 

Two 19th-century philosophers, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Immanuel Kant, appear to have inspired such utopian theories: Hegel with his idea that history had an end point and Kant with his belief that perpetual peace could only be achieved through the spreading of universal democracy.

These utopian assumptions of perpetual peace through universal democracy were tested ad nauseam over the last 30 years by Americans in the form of liberal imperialism. Each time the experiment was tried – in post-Soviet Russiain Afghanistan in 2001, and in Iraq in 2003 – it failed.

Frankly, for most non-Western countries, democracy is not a natural end point. 

In those countries where democracy was imposed successfully, such as Japan or Germany after World War II, the Prussian and Samurai warrior cultures were utterly eradicated by the Allies. No such defeat was visited upon Russia after the Cold War. Such a total defeat was not imposed upon either Afghanistan or Iraq, for that matter.

Given that the United States would not be able to seek unconditional surrender from the CPC in a future Sino-American war, it is unlikely that democracy could be imposed in an ancient polity, like China, which has absolutely no history or experience with democracy. 

What’s more, should internal collapse occur without much interference from the West, it is likely that another highly centralized regime would replace the CPC.  

Western elites should make policies built on this reality rather than the fantasy that China will remake itself into a peaceful democracy. 

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