According to the Financial Times, there “is no great clamour in China for western democracy.” The assumption in the West that prosperity in China inevitably results in democracy may unduly privilege Western political values in a foreign land. The Times suggests that prosperity can be the source of rising pressure for political change rather than an antidote to it. In other words, the power shift between the state and individual that is unleashed by rising incomes does not necessary privilege the individual. Time and again, China’s leaders have refused to shift power to the individual at the expense of the state. This is problematic because citizens joining the rising middle class tend to demand more transparency in government and rule of law instead of corruption and cronyism. The continued hegemony of the state allows, however, for the perpetuation of the latter because government officials run the state.
The relationship between economic development and political democracy is more complex than is typically presumed in the West. Put another way, the rest of the world is not made in the West’s image. It is as though a Westerner could hardly imagine a lack of clamoring for democracy in China even among the affluent. It is very possible that the Chinese newly rich would want a breed of change that does not reflect Western democracy. The question is perhaps whether the government officials in power would permit even such a change.
Rather than a change of system, rising incomes may fuel a power struggle between different power-centers—one being the old and the other(s) being the new. This sort of thing happened in the Salem witch trials in seventeenth-century New England, as newly-propertied woman were literally removed by established landed gentry. The religious subterfuge belied the more earthly battle between old and new centers of power based at least in part on economic change.
Similarly, contending centers of power may be the real dynamic in China. Not even a major upheaval would necessarily usher in democracy, given the lack of democratic values in Chinese culture historically (with the exception of the two republics attempted at the end of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century). Yet it is possible that revolution could provide the impetus for an attempt to give a republic another try—the experiment having been attempted twice already. The spread of democracy, or at least the appearance of it, could challenge Chinese culture to finally relent. However, even in such a case, the result would undoubtedly be infused with distinctive Chinese elements. Far more predictable is the probably contention of new and old centers of power clothed in Chinese garments.
Philip Stephens, “Political Cracks Imperil China’s Power,” The Financial Times, January 24, 2013.