China in Transition

Three Scenarios for Political Reform

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

While considerable progress has been made in the area of economic reforms in China over the past 30 years, political reforms have lagged behind. The contradiction between the capitalist model adopted in the economic arena and the one-party rule maintained by the Communist Party on the political front has been growing increasingly prominent. The legitimacy and ability of the Communist Party to govern as a ruling party is being called into question. China is being nudged toward a transition to a democratic political system based on the premise of fair elections.

When it comes to democratization, however, the situation remains an "agreement in general but no compromise on the details." There is still no clear path toward democracy. Nevertheless, political changes in China over the next 20 to 30 years can be analyzed using three different scenarios: the Taiwanese and South Korean model , the Original Chinese model and the Russian model . The final outcome depends on whether or not economic performance remains solid, and if so, whether or not democratization moves forward ( figure 1 ).

Figure 1: Three scenarios toward political reform

Figure 1. Rise in China's balance of payments surplus and foreign exchange reserves

(Source) Material prepared by the author

The soft landing scenario - Taiwanese and South Korean model

The experiences of countries around the world show that a strong correlation exists between economic development and democracy. In fact, most advanced nations have adopted some form of democratic political systems, while most developing countries feature non-democratic systems, such as one-party rule. However, it should be noted that the causality here runs from economic progress to democracy (through improved educational standards and the development of a middle class, among others), rather than the other way round.

Political changes that have taken place in Taiwan and South Korea since the 1980s, in which one-party rule evolved relatively smoothly into democratic systems, serve as successful reference cases for China. In the case of Taiwan, the first direct presidential election was held in 1996, and produced an administration that reflected public opinion. Four years later Chen Shui-bian, a candidate representing the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, won the subsequent election and political power shifted peacefully from the ruling party to an opposition party. More recently, Nationalist Party candidate Ma Ying-jeou was elected president and returned his party to power in 2008. Taiwan's experience demonstrates that democracy will be feasible in Chinese society when the time is ripe.

After 30 years of open-door policy, China is now reaching the stage of heightened public desire for political participation due to the progress made in (1) economic development, (2) transition to a market economy, (3) development of a civil society and (4) advancing globalization. The Chinese government is becoming increasingly compelled to comply with this trend.

In this scenario the rise of fifth-generation leaders, who entered university after the Cultural Revolution, will mark a turning point that should see the democratic wing of the Communist Party of China (CPC) becoming more influential within the CPC. As the democratic wing asserts itself, it will begin working aggressively on democratic systems such as the rule of law, fair elections, separation of powers, and guarantees of free speech and freedom of assembly, which includes the freedom to organize political parties.

Eventually, direct or indirect elections will be held that could lead to political power shifting between the ruling and opposition parties. This scenario does not exclude the possibility that the Communist Party, having abandoned its traditional ideology (including a "former Communist Party" that has changed its name or has been formed through a split), might earn plaudits among voters for the economic development it has achieved. It could remain in power even through free and fair elections, in the same way that the Liberal Democratic Party did under the 1955 system in Japan.( note 1 )

The status quo scenario - Original chinese model

This scenario is the goal of the CPC, which is trying to remain in power for as long as possible. No clear roadmap has been presented by either the CPC or the government, but arguments put forward by scholars within the establishment are indicative of the thinking within the Chinese leadership. For example, according to Zhou Tianyong, deputy director of research at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, political system reforms must be pushed forward under the strong leadership of the CPC, and they must be advanced gradually to resolve the political instability that will come with them.( note 2 )

Zhou insists that the CPC should continue to maintain firm control over the military, the bureaucracy and the flow of information. What Zhou calls political reforms are limited to reforms of administrative systems, fiscal and taxation systems, relationships between the central government and local governments, the functioning of the National People's Congress, the Political Consultative Conference, and the judicial system. Holding elections that form the basis of a democratic system is not included. Changes at this level are closer to "maintenance of the status quo" than being "gradual reform" as claimed by their proponents.

Like Zhou and other CPC spokespeople, some overseas experts also take the view that no sizeable political change will occur, and the "original Chinese model" based on one-party rule by the CPC will be maintained for the long term. For example, James Mann, a veteran diplomatic reporter formerly with the Los Angeles Times , made the following prediction regarding the timetable for political change in China:

Twenty-five to thirty years from now, a wealthier, stronger China will still be operating under the same one-party rule, and organized opposition forces will remain repressed, as they are today. At the same time, China will be more open to the outside world, and it will be connected deeply with a number of countries around the world through trade, investment and other economic bonds. ( note 3 )

However, Mann's warns that China's continued rise as a global power featuring economic development under a sustained authoritarian system will cast a damper on worldwide efforts to promote democratic values, in contrast to statements made by CPC spokespeople who maintain that China is best-suited for one-party rule.

The hard landing scenario - Russian model

The CPC approaches democratization passively because of its desire to retain control and its concern that the political situation could destabilize with the advancement of political reforms that include democratization. However, as the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s has demonstrated, the longer it takes to realize democratic reforms, the greater the decline in economic performance and increasing likelihood of a "hard landing" accompanied by tremendous confusion.( note 4 )

Under this scenario, Chinese economic growth will stall, and little progress will be made in the areas of support services for the weak and disadvantaged, new social security systems, and improving public services. In addition, unemployment and poverty will worsen and cause greater public dissatisfaction, particularly among society's underprivileged members, which will manifest itself in the form of large-scale antigovernment demonstrations. Confrontations and fissures could then develop within the establishment over crisis response tactics.

A popular uprising may overthrow the communist administration and democratic elections may be held as a consequence, but any new non-communist government that assumes power would most likely be fragile and vulnerable to repeated military coups and similar disruptions; because the foundations of the fledgling democratic system would be weak and public awareness would remain immature. In the worst case the country could disintegrate, leading to an extremely unstable political situation capable of deteriorating into a vicious cycle of entrenched economic and political turmoils.

From the viewpoint of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens, and in consideration of China's coexistence and co-prosperity with other countries around the world, of these three scenarios I believe the Taiwanese and South Korean model - the peaceful transition - is the direction China should pursue.

December 26, 2008
  1. Kwan, Chi Hung, China's Economic Reform - The Last Lap (in Japanese), Nikkei Inc., 2005
  2. Zhou, Tianyong, Solid Offensive: Report on the Study of Political System Reforms in China after the 17th Party Congress (in Chinese), Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Publishers, 2008
  3. Mann, James, The China Fantasy, Viking Penguin, 2007
  4. Chang, Gordon, The Coming Collapse of China, Random House, 2001
Related article
  1. "Democratization: India Is Premature and China Is Overdue," China in Transition, December 11, 2007.

December 26, 2008