The Inevitability of Chinese Democracy

Fifteen years ago, Fang Hongin was protesting in Tienanmen Square. A few years ago, in Beijing, he ran one of China's most popular TV shows, each week testing the limits of the authorities' indulgence. Today, he runs Dragon TV, Shanghai's leading station, and advertisements featuring him hang from the city's skyscrapers.

Hu Shuli belongs to the same generation: the journalist whom the Economist magazine calls "China's most dangerous woman," moved from her first job, with the Party press, to editing Caijng , a business magazine that runs stories on corruption, exposing businessmen and public officials.

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret these experiments with a free press as signs that democracy in China is near. The Party allows Caijng to expose corruption because this helps it to stop China's most serious disease. "The first civil right is getting out of poverty," says Yongtu Long, one of China's WTO negotiators. "In 15 years, we got 200 million people out of poverty; 700 million Chinese today have access to electricity, an unknown luxury 15 years ago. This is why our priority is growth: everything else, frankly, is less important."

Growth, however, does only mean getting people out of poverty. Twenty-five years ago, China had a more egalitarian society than Sweden; today there is vast inequality between city and countryside, between the western provinces and those bordering the Pacific ocean, and within cities, which attract a constant flow of former peasants looking for jobs. Indeed, China's income distribution today looks more like that of Brazil than that of Sweden.