Has capitalism planted the seeds of inevitable democracy in China?:
Will China’s Capitalist Revolution Turn Democratic, by Minxin Pei, Project Syndicate: Communist China has experienced a monumental capitalist revolution in the last two decades, with an economy that is now six times bigger than it was 20 years ago. ... But if these stunning economic statistics make you think that so much capitalist development must also have brought more democracy to China, think again.
Most Westerners believe in a theory of liberal evolution, according to which sustained economic growth, by increasing wealth and the size of the middle class, gradually makes a country more democratic. While the long-run record of this theory is irrefutable, China’s authoritarian ruling elite ... has been smart enough to take adaptive measures aimed at countering the liberalizing effects of economic development.
Thus, for all its awe-inspiring economic achievement, ... democracy in China has stalled... Since the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 ... not a single major democratic reform initiative has been implemented.
Instead of democratic transition, China has witnessed a consolidation of authoritarian rule... Since 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been pursuing a two-pronged strategy: selective repression that targets organized political opposition and co-optation of new social elites (the intelligentsia, professionals, and private entrepreneurs).
This strategy emphasizes the maintenance of an extensive law enforcement apparatus designed to eliminate any incipient organized opposition. Huge investments have strengthened the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a large anti-riot paramilitary force whose specialty is the quick suppression of anti-government protests...
To deal with new emerging political threats, such as the information revolution, the Chinese government has spent mightily on manpower and technology. A special 30,000-strong police unit ... screens Internet traffic, advanced technology is deployed to block access to overseas Web sites considered “hostile or harmful,” and Internet service and content providers ... must comply with onerous restrictions designed to suppress political dissent and track down offenders...
Having learned ... that a bureaucratic ruling party must co-opt new social elites to deprive potential opposition groups of leaders, the ... urban intelligentsia and professionals have been pampered with material perks and political recognition, while new private entrepreneurs have been allowed to join the Party.
This strategy of pre-emptive political decapitation has produced enormous dividends for the Party. In the 1980’s, its principal adversaries were the urban intelligentsia... Today, the mainstream of the Chinese intelligentsia is an integral part of the ruling elite. Many have joined the Party ..., and a large percentage enjoy various professional and financial privileges.
Predictably, the intelligentsia, usually the most liberal social group, is no longer a lethal threat to party rule. Worse, without support from this strategic group, other social groups, such as workers and peasants, have become politically marginalized and rudderless.
Although the Party’s ... approach has worked since 1989, it is doubtful that it will retain its efficacy for another 17 years. To the extent that China’s authoritarian regime is by nature exclusionary (it can only incorporate a limited number of elites), the co-optation strategy will soon run up against its limits, and the Party will no longer have the resources to buy off the intelligentsia or keep private entrepreneurs happy.
At the same time, selective repression can contain social frustrations ... only temporarily. As long as much of Chinese society views the current political system as unjust, unresponsive, and corrupt, there will always be a large reservoir of ill will toward the ruling elites.
When things go wrong – as is likely, given mounting social strains caused by rising inequality, environmental degradation, and deteriorating public services – China’s alienated masses could become politically radicalized. ...
So it may be premature for the Party to celebrate the success of its adaptive strategy. China’s rulers may have stalled democratic trends for now, but the current strategy has, perhaps, merely delayed the inevitable.