How (Not) to Bring Democracy to China

Over at Foreign Policy, Yasheng Huang’s got an essay up called “The Key To Bringing Democracy to China” that’s so much wrong, I’ve just got to respond.

Huang’s argument is this: You won’t get China to democratize by making moral claims about human rights, because, for cultural reasons, those arguments don’t resonate there. To sell China’s pragmatic elites on democracy, you need to convince them it’s in their country’s best interests to democratize. The way to do that is to explain all the practical benefits democracy will bring.

On why liberal claims about universal rights won’t resonate in China, Huang writes:

The reason is a deep gulf of values. The Chinese have a utilitarian concept of “rights” — that they should advance the greatest good for the greatest number of people — in contrast to the Western view of rights as protections against encroachments on the disenfranchised few.

And on what would work better:

It’s time for the United States to pivot to a new approach toward influencing China’s political future: explaining that democracy produces concrete benefits such as balanced growth, stability, and personal security — even for top Communist Party officials. This performance-based argument will resonate with many of China’s economic and intellectual elites and may have a chance to influence the thinking of Xi Jinping and his fellow top officials.

What’s the problem? For starters, the national essentialism. “The Chinese have”?!? There is no way that the 1.3 billion people living in China today are all utilitarians, just as there’s no way all “Westerners” are liberals. Yes, there are central tendencies in social norms and values that cluster in time and space, but this level of essentialism is just silly.

From experience, I’m also deeply skeptical of claims that democracy won’t come to a particular place because it’s incompatible with the local culture. This exceptionalist claim has been made at one time or another about practically every state, religion, or region right up until the point when democratization happened there—and sometimes beyond. Latin American countries wouldn’t democratize because Catholicism. African countries couldn’t democratize because primitive tribalism. Asian countries wouldn’t democratize because Confucianism. Middle Eastern countries wouldn’t democratize because Islam. Well, whaddya know? It’s 2012, and we’ve now got democratic regimes in every one of those previously impervious bastions of backwardness. With a track record as poor as that, the cultural-compatibility theory of democratization should be taken out behind the barn and put down once and for all.

Finally, the idea that China’s political elites can be convinced to democratize because democracy brings social benefits is premised on a misunderstanding of how and why regime change actually happens. Generally speaking, authoritarian regimes survive because they produce real benefits for the elites who run them, and because it’s risky and hard for the rest of the people stuck living under those regimes to get organized to overthrow them. Every once in a while, though, enough people can overcome those steep odds and get sufficiently organized to compel elites to allow citizens to start picking their rulers. If they’re slow on the uptake, those elites might lose their shirts and maybe even their lives in the process. If they’re more nimble-minded, those elites will usually manage to protect most of their property and privileges, even as they (begrudgingly) accept the formalities of equal citizenship and open political competition. What they won’t care so much about under either scenario is how everyone else is doing.

The core problem with Huang’s salesmanship is that it conflates public and private goods. The “balanced growth, stability, and personal security” Huang sees as democracy’s selling points are all more or less public goods; access to them can’t be closed off, and their benefits would be widely shared, regardless of who produces them. By contrast, the wealth and status that Chinese elites enjoy now are private goods. Access to them is tightly restricted, and the more widely they’re shared, the less valuable they become. Crucially, their existence also depends on maintenance of the current system. If the Communist Party fragments or gets toppled, the private goods the Party now offers will disappear, and today’s elites will be forced to scramble anew for the privileges the current system was designed to produce. One guy’s corruption is another’s gravy train.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard to see why China’s elites would be persuaded by talk of the public benefits democracy might bring. To me, this jawboning strategy seems a bit like trying to sell a Prius to Ferrari driver by talking about how much less pollution it makes. As far as I can tell, the only way to sell democracy to any particular batch of authoritarian elites is to convince them that they and their families and friends will personally suffer if they don’t hurry up and get out of the way, and that outcome is often only weakly related to the public goods Huang lists. If you’re wondering just how weak that relationship can get, just take a gander at Zimbabwe or Angola.

Oh, and by the way: U.S. policymakers have been talking to autocrats about the economic benefits of democratization for years. Like, decades, even. If it hasn’t already convinced leaders in China—and Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and Cambodia, and…well, you get the picture—I’m not sure why it would suddenly start to work now.

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  1. RobW

     /  November 20, 2012

    Curious as to what you think though about slower, more gradual reforms premised on the notion of popular and elite perceptions of regime legitimacy. Would elites take steps to shore up their legitimacy in such as a way as to, over time, create a sort of path dependency towards democratic transition. I think what I find troubling is that idea that democracy must come about via chaos and social breakdown. I agree that, overwhelmingly, that has been the case; but, it is also a situation where you’re only seeing the flashpoints. I’m thinking of say Scott’s (1985) notions of small moves of resistance designed to open up political space to which one could add the possibility of an elite concerned with legitimacy acquiescing. Thoughts?

    • I’m not saying democracy can only come through chaos and social breakdown. I’m saying that elites won’t offer democracy unless they feel compelled to do so. Sometimes they will feel that compulsion before things fall apart and will bargain over the terms of that transformation in ways that avert revolution and collapse. What they generally won’t do, though, is accede to democracy without a clear and present threat to their power just because they believe it will help their country.

  2. Gyre

     /  November 21, 2012

    It seems to me that pretty much any political system would be applicable to a nation/region with the appropriate internal/external environment and history. If the Chinese elites felt that authoritarian rule was creating unrest and would ultimately threaten their position* they could conceivably favor an opposition. There must be rich Chinese families that have some grudge, there’s always more people who want patronage and riches than there is wealth to distribute among them.

    *Or worse, outright threaten to prey upon them if they don’t appease the government.

  3. Great post! I now have a strong desire to use the phrase “impervious bastions of backwardness” in writings of my own…

  4. I think you really misread that column. Huang pretty plainly believes everything you’re saying here. He *is* saying that the torches and pitchforks are coming if they don’t reform to a more open framework. His statement about chinese conceptions of “rights” is entirely correct–you’ll find such reasoning from a judge’s verdict in some chinese civil case. You’ll also ultimately (and the angle he’s coming at here) about the social bargain that the Chinese civilians have with the Communist Party. He’s saying that the elite reasoning that you’re pointing to in your blog post is crushing economic growth and undermining that social bargain, and with it, consent for the ruling of the current elite. Another angle at this understanding is to say that Huang believes that higher quality public goods have become critically necessary for smooth governance and control, and that some forsaking of rent-seeking is appropriate and necessary.

    One last thing, I find that essay as similar to those by Michael Pettis, folks from Caixin, etc, etc, etc, who are basically going at it like the climate scientists about global warming. They are trying to convey the seriousness of the situation in a way that elites will listen and react firmly enough, but without directly talking to them or otherwise impacting their public face. There is some reading between the words necessary here, and I don’t think the audience are really Westerners in a way.

    • Hmm. Perhaps you’re right about his intentions, although If you are, I don’t think that meaning was as plain as you say. For example, if he meant to say that China’s laws codify a utilitarian version of rights, why not say “Under Chinese law” instead of “The Chinese”? And if he meant to speak to Chinese elites in code, Foreign Policy was an odd choice of platform. In short, I think it’s plausible that he meant to make an instrumental case for reform, but if so, I don’t think he made it very clearly.

  5. Hans Gutbrod

     /  November 25, 2012

    I wonder what (reliable) data says about perceived legitimacy. Presumably this would be one of the major factors determining change. the LiTS for example shows pretty convincingly that democracy is not so much in demand in Russia. Would data (along the lines of “is the country going in the right direction?” ajd the like) not be critical to understanding the trajectory?

    • That kind of survey data would be really interesting, but they don’t and can’t exist as long as China constrains speech and rewards loyalty so strongly.

      • Hans Gutbrod

         /  November 25, 2012

        Well, here’s a task for social research then, not least since you can get at these issues through proxies.

    • Gyre

       /  November 27, 2012

      Legitimacy is the dark matter of political science. I don’t know if it’s possible to reliably measure it.

  6. What is “balanced growth”? Presumably, ec. growth that is still robust but somewhat slower than the present Chinese rate — thus less environmentally damaging and (ideally) w the benefits more evenly distributed. But it’s not clear, at least to me, that democracy wd necessarily bring this in train, though perhaps more likely than w the current system. For related thoughts, see here.


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