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  • Will China Democratize?Confronting a Classic Dilemma
  • Michel Oksenberg (bio)

Since the brutal suppression of student demonstrations in June 1989, China scholars have waged a vigorous debate about the prospects for a democratic transition in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Roughly speaking, three views exist. The first stresses the strengths and resiliency of the existing authoritarian arrangements. The second emphasizes their weaknesses. The third focuses less on the toughness or fragility of the current political system, and looks instead at the long-term democratizing implications of economic and social change.

The first school argues that China’s institutional arrangements are deeply embedded in society, and are yielding sufficient economic resources and coercive capabilities to keep the communist elite in power indefinitely. This elite is determined to maintain its power through authoritarian rule. The regime’s performance, as reflected in high economic growth and the avoidance of a Soviet-style social and political collapse, garners it a required minimum of support from relevant sectors of society. Institutional developments such as village elections and the strengthening of the National People’s Congress, which are often cited as evidence of democratization, are still in an incipient stage. They face considerable opposition and an uncertain future, and it is too early to say whether they will lead to democracy.

Moreover, these promising developments have not prevented the regime from increasing its capacity to suppress dissent and quell unrest through expanded surveillance and the strengthening of the People’s Armed Police.

The trends of the past two decades point less toward democracy than toward the rise of a corrupt “soft” authoritarianism not unlike that found [End Page 27] in Suharto’s Indonesia or Park Chung Hee’s South Korea. Only a calamity severe enough to divide and paralyze the top leadership and rouse widespread social unrest could fundamentally threaten the regime. And any such collapse would more likely unleash widespread violence and chaos, followed by the reimposition of authoritarian rule, than bring about democracy.

Adherents of this first view also find little support for democracy in Chinese political thought, whether traditional or contemporary. They typically believe that the 1989 demonstrations were not fundamentally democratic in nature, and furnished little evidence of an emerging civil society. Finally, these analysts tend to think that the Chinese dissident community will have little influence over China’s future.

The second opinion claims that: 1) the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is moribund; 2) the central state is losing power relative to provincial and local political units; 3) the regime is losing popular support; 4) the armed forces may no longer be willing to carry out a crackdown like that of 1989; and 5) growing corruption is corroding the regime’s legitimacy and effectiveness. Proponents of this view find evidence of some of the same dynamics that destroyed communism in the former Soviet bloc. They also look upon the 1989 demonstrations as indicating a popular yearning for democracy and a potential for the formation of a civil society. They find support for democracy in traditional Chinese political thought, and even more so in the recent work of Chinese political thinkers who hail from Hong Kong and Taiwan but have influence on the mainland as well. Such analysts usually believe that political dissidents, whether living abroad or imprisoned in China, are likely to play an important role in the years ahead.

The third set of analysts finds encouragement in China’s openness to the outside world and the country’s dramatic move away from socialist planning and the command economy. These analysts point to the inevitable political consequences of economic growth, the communications revolution, and the emergence of a more diverse society and an urban middle class. They tend to see in China the same economic and sociological processes that have led to democracy elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia. They stress the importance of a range of recent reforms, including village elections; the strengthening of people’s assemblies at all levels of the hierarchy; the formation of government-licensed nongovernmental organizations; the development of a legal system; the expansion of the media and the beginnings of investigative journalism; and the leadership’s acceptance of a species of interest-based...