China’s Hidden Democratization

SHANGHAI – Since Xi Jinping was anointed as China’s new president, reports of official repression of dissent have hardly abated. But, while criticism of China’s human rights record clearly has merit, it is important not to lose sight of the extent of genuine political change in China.

Since 1978, China’s political system has overseen the transfer of a wide swath of economic power from the state to its people. As a result, Chinese may operate family farms, own homes and businesses, control their educational choices, patent inventions, and amass fortunes. It is precisely the exercise of these individual rights that has created the foundation for China’s ongoing economic transformation.

By creating the diverse and conflicting private economic interests that are typical of a capitalist society, China has had to create a set of institutions to clarify and mediate the exercise of these rights. These emerging institutional arrangements include contracts and commercial law, bankruptcy and labor codes, and courts to oversee their enforcement. More recently, local commissions, non-governmental organizations, an increasingly assertive media, and sanctioned public demonstrations have become established channels for mediating social conflict.

But the transfer of rights has often been ambiguous, and is all too frequently vulnerable to official corruption. As a result, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is facing growing demands from the country’s well-educated and affluent middle class for greater transparency and accountability in the institutions on which their careers and livelihoods depend.