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  • “Creeping Democratization” in China
  • Minxin Pei (bio)

The “third wave” of global democratization has left untouched several East Asian autocracies that are experiencing rapid economic growth: China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. These three countries have made enormous progress in liberalizing markets and integrating themselves into the world economy. Most private citizens there have gained considerable economic freedom and civil liberties as a result of market-oriented reforms. Yet these encouraging developments have not been accompanied by any meaningful degree of liberalization of the political system. Political rights and participation remain severely restricted, and the ruling elite maintains a monopoly of power.

These East Asian autocracies’ lack of significant progress toward democratization challenges two widely held views about the relationship between economic development and politics:

  1. 1. The historical experience of the West and the rise of new democracies since the end of the Second World War indicate that economic development has a powerful impact on a country’s political system and forces major institutional changes, primarily (but not exclusively) to ensure greater security of property rights. New property-owning social groups eager to defend their rights will struggle to liberalize the political system.

  2. 2. The rule of law is the foundation for sustained economic growth.

A cursory examination of the progress of political liberalization in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia would both confound and alarm advocates of democracy and the rule of law. How did ruling elites in [End Page 65] these authoritarian states manage to hold on to power in the face of rapid social change unleashed by high rates of growth? How do we explain these countries’ spectacular records of economic growth given their weak or absent rule of law? If the rule of law fails to take hold in the East Asian autocracies, will they be able to sustain their high growth rates? At first glance, the East Asian anomalies would seem to suggest that the above-mentioned theories are wrong—that is, that economic liberalization can occur without accompanying changes in the political system, and that long-term growth can be achieved in the absence of the rule of law.

A more careful examination of the evidence, however, reveals that in the East Asian autocracies, economic development is in fact being accompanied by changes in political institutions, albeit relatively slow and subtle ones. The rule of law is gradually emerging and acquiring constraining power, although not without great difficulty. In the case of China, although there have been virtually no signs of direct or overt democratization, endogenous and incremental changes in the political institutions of the authoritarian regime are gradually forming subtle but important checks and balances against the ruling party’s monopoly of power, strengthening the rule of law, and cultivating self-government at the grassroots level. Although China’s progress in these three different areas has been extremely limited to date, the liberalizing trends appear to be accelerating. If they are allowed to continue, they will gradually lay the institutional foundations for the eventual democratization of China.

Endogenous Institutional Changes

Thus far, the literature on democratization has focused on two main sources of change. Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter have emphasized the political calculation of autocrats as the most critical factor in transitions from authoritarianism. 1 Others have stressed factors exogenous to the regime, such as foreign influences, mobilization of opposition forces, and socioeconomic conditions. Relatively few authors have examined endogenous changes in existing political institutions as a source of “creeping democratization.”

In most cases of transition, autocratic regimes pressed by rising costs of maintaining political control implement programs to economize their dwindling resources (mass political support and fiscal revenues). Most such programs lead to a greater dependence on institutions as sources of political stability, efficiency, and credibility. This explains why in many authoritarian states a significant increase in the level of political institutionalization long precedes democratization. Typical components of political institutionalization under authoritarian rule include a modest strengthening of the rule of law, the establishment of nominally [End Page 66] representative institutions under the direction of the regime, the expansion of local autonomy, and even the holding of semi-free local elections.

Such endogenous—and usually incremental—institutional changes may unexpectedly pave the way for...

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