Communist China has experienced a monumental capitalist revolution in the last two decades, with an economy that is now six times bigger than it was 20 years ago. A minor player in the global economy in the 1980’s, China today is the world’s third largest trading power. But if these stunning economic statistics make you think that so much capitalist development must also have brought more democracy to China, think again.
Most Westerners believe in a theory of liberal evolution, according to which sustained economic growth, by increasing wealth and the size of the middle class, gradually makes a country more democratic. While the long-run record of this theory is irrefutable, China’s authoritarian ruling elite is not only determined to hold on to power, but it also has been smart enough to take adaptive measures aimed at countering the liberalizing effects of economic development.
Thus, for all its awe-inspiring economic achievement, China has made remarkably little progress in political liberalization. Indeed, judging by several key indicators, progress toward democracy in China has stalled, despite unprecedented economic prosperity and personal freedom.
For instance, in the mid-1980’s, Chinese leaders seriously discussed and later drew up a blueprint for modest democratic reforms. Today, the topic of political reform is taboo. Nearly all the major institutional reforms, such as strengthening the legislature, holding village elections, and building a modern legal system, were launched in the 1980’s. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, however, not a single major democratic reform initiative has been implemented.