A Korean Trajectory for China?
China is perhaps the most notable recent case of simultaneous economic growth and increasing authoritarianism. But South Korea’s recent history shows how a vibrant economy can lead to the emergence of a large middle class – and, with it, demands for democratization.
SEOUL – In October, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China endorsed another five-year term for President Xi Jinping, effectively ending the practice of limiting the presidency to two terms. It was thus also an unmistakable break with the tradition of collective leadership established in the late 1970s, after the end of Mao Zedong’s one-man rule.
China is the most notable recent case of simultaneous economic growth and increasing authoritarianism. But it is not the first. Not long ago, South Korea had its own version of “developmental dictatorship.” For much of the twentieth century, Korean leaders, like China’s today, prioritized economic catch-up through mercantilist growth over a democratic transition – until democrats refused to wait any longer.
Simply put, the Korean story is one in which political authoritarianism was accompanied by miraculously fast economic growth, which in turn became the material basis for a democratic push led by the middle class. Could China take a similar path?