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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 51-59

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The New Inequality

An Chen

Capitalism has given rise to significant social stratification and rising class conflict in China. Will this push the country toward a Western-type democracy, at least in the near future? My answer is no. One major reason is that the development of capitalism and class politics in China is not likely to produce powerful prodemocracy social pressure or shape a pattern of class alliances in favor of democratization.

Many students of democratic transitions classify them according to two broad models. The first, which I will call the structural model, stresses the importance of broad socioeconomic conditions that favor democratization, or at least a shift away from full-blown authoritarianism. The second category is the "pact-based" or "negotiated" transition model, which focuses on the strategic choices and interactions of political elites in causing "authoritarian ruptures" and "democratic openings."

The latter model, which does not rule out structural pressures for democratic change, has been the most popular among scholars of post-1974 "third-wave" transitions. Yet this model seems hardly applicable to China. In most cases of negotiated transition, there was a tradition of civil society and organized political opposition that made it possible for elites (incumbents and opposition leaders alike) to play a bargaining game. But China's departure from authoritarianism, if it occurs, will not happen in such a context. In order to grasp the possible trajectories of a Chinese transition, then, we must turn to the structural model.

This model comes in several variants, a full account of which need not detain us here. Suffice it to say that the most significant in its application to China is, in my view, the one that I call the classical structural [End Page 51] model. Derived mostly from European historical experience, this variant may shed light on crucial questions about China's future: Where precisely are the agents of China's democratization to come from? And what precisely will be the engine of democratization in a country that has no democratic history, tradition, or culture? Recent decades of economic liberalization and consequent changes in the structure of Chinese society have made the European experience relevant as never before.

The upshot is clear: China's political life is taking place within a social and political context that is new for China, but which is also familiar from a number of earlier historical cases, and which therefore should be fairly predictable, at least in outline, provided that the basics of the classic structural model are intelligently revised in light of the circumstance that sets the Chinese case—and indeed all "recent" cases—apart from the older, "historical" cases.

So what divides "recent" from "historical" democratizers? Until about a half-century ago, movement toward democracy was an incremental, long-haul process whose origins could be traced back to a tradition of political pluralism. Progress toward liberal democracy would occur against a broad political background in which virtually all the democratic components, such as the separation of powers, constitutional rule, and parliamentary sovereignty, had been gradually instituted. Democracy became fuller as the right to vote was extended to ever wider classes of people.

In most contemporary cases—China included—the antecedent regimes are autocracies that lack anything more than a semblance of minimal democratic mechanisms and that exclude nearly all social classes from government. Yet even in these cases, democracy—including universal suffrage—is established in principle if defied in practice. So actual democratization, should it occur, will come in what Ruth Berins Collier calls "a single reform episode of sweeping regime change," in which all social groups are enfranchised. 1

What implications flow from this? Partly because contemporary authoritarian regimes cannot be justified as such on ideological grounds, they are haunted by legitimation problems. In China, where Marxist ideology has lost its grip on hearts and minds and where the economy is increasingly integrated into an international community in which liberty and democracy prevail, the ideological or moral foundations of rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have eroded considerably. And yet, except for a brief...