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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