For the incurable IR major, the most exciting event of the week was not a certain greeting card-heavy holiday, but the visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to the United States, a visit has made many in Washington and Beijing as nervous as the average boyfriend this week, hoping desperately that nothing goes wrong.
This visit is exciting not because Mr. Xi is the Vice President of China, but because he is in all likelihood the next president of China, a position that turns over typically about once in a decade. Outgoing President Hu Jintao made a similar visit in 2002 that went a long way towards setting the tone of Sino-American relations over the past decade. Every move Mr. Xi makes will be closely watched for its implications on what is known as the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
It’s also interesting because many expect it to be the last such visit. By 2022, China will be far richer and more powerful, at a level of income that puts it closer to that of Western democracies, enough so that many expect the Chinese Communist Party to finally fall out of power and leave China on the path to becoming the world’s largest democracy.
Henry Rowen published an article where he claimed that the increasing size of the Chinese middle class will mean democracy by 2025. Gordon Chang decided to be a bit more bold and publish an article in Foreign Policy magazine where he predicted it would happen this year.
As cheering as such predictions might be, they’re probably wrong. The fallacy that lies at the heart of most prognostications about China is the idea that it must follow the same path to liberal democracy as Western nations have, one in which a newly wealthy middle class has the resources and time to start demanding representation for itself from the powers that be, leading to a flourishing of a liberal, democratic society.
In China, the middle class has chosen their side, and it is the side of the Party. Party membership rates among capitalist entrepreneurs are the highest of any group in society. Most leading capitalists have extensive ties to the Party and benefit greatly from them. A democratic China means to them a loss of their privileges and potential wealth redistribution at the hands of the poor but democratically empowered Chinese masses.
The correlation between economic growth and democracy has been dropping in years past, and not only because of the co-option of the middle class. Authoritarian governments from Moscow to Riyadh have figured out that they can crack down hard on opposition movements while not harming their economies.
The Communist Party is not stupid. As the world watched the Arab Spring, in Beijing they were taking notes. Calls for an Arab-style “Jasmine Revolution” went nowhere as the government arrested leading dissidents and censored internet postings related to the protests.
As freedoms such as speech and religion are heavily monitored, the Party has left personal consumption to grow unchecked. The implicit deal is that the Chinese people can become as rich and comfortable as they want, but they cannot question the authority of the Party. This seems to be a deal that most Chinese citizens have decided to take.
Most of the other democracies of East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) democratized under heavy American pressure. Places that were not under American military protection (Vietnam, North Korea, China) have shown fewer inclinations towards democracy.
As comforting as it might be to imagine the Chinese will soon join the world’s democratic club, it is more likely that in roughly ten years, the awkward courtship process will have to start all over again with the Communist Party’s next leader-to-be.