I don’t think it’s ever going to look like the United States. Part of the nervousness and paranoia that we see in the Communist Party at present is the understanding that there’s kind of a shelf life to authoritarian regimes, or at least historically there has been. This is something China is keen to buck the trend on.
If you look at the Asian tigers, if you look at South Korea and Taiwan, when they went through their periods of rapid growth, they were also dictatorships – but they reached a certain level of prosperity, and then the middle classes demanded a greater share in government.
China did seem slowly to be heading in that direction really up until the end of the Hu Jintao government. If you think of the experiments that were going on eight or ten years ago – there were village-level elections, which everybody thought would slowly move up the chain of government, the state was allowing civil society to develop and expand, there was much greater freedom of information and personal mobility.
Reform has gone into reverse under Xi. He argues very strongly that Party rule is essential – and pretty much eternal.
All of those are precursors to some kind of transition, and there was a lot of discussion about transition, including among Chinese who thought that China could perfectly well do what happened in Hungary. The one-party state declares itself over, and the party splits into its constituent factions and contests elections. So basically the same guys are running things, they’re just alternating power in a different way.
But that has all really gone into reverse under Xi Jinping. He now argues, very strongly, that Party rule is essential, and pretty much eternal, and any challenge to that is dealt with extremely ruthlessly. The law has become clearly an instrument of the Party, there’s much more censorship, increasing control of civil society. It’s hard to tell whether it will work for long, but it’s clearly happening – this has all been explicitly stated in a notorious document called ‘Document 9’ that all the elements that comprise a functioning democratic state are in themselves a threat to the Communist Party, and the primacy of the Communist Party remains the Communist Party’s major concern.
China is essentially a land-based 17th-century empire. It’s twice the size it was in 1644. That’s quite a challenge, in democratic terms.
The real question is, if China were to become a democracy through some process or another, can something that big function as a unitary state and a democracy? China is essentially a land-based 17th-century empire. It’s twice the size it was in 1644. And that’s quite a challenge, in democratic terms. So there’s always a tug between the centralising state and the need to devolve powers, and that goes back and forth.
The Communist Party would say that elections happen already – it’s just that they all happen within the Party. What’s missing is the popular vote part. But if you read their speeches, they all talk about democracy all the time. And technically, opposition parties do exist. They just don’t have any power.
My own feeling is that we’re looking at a period of stagnation and increasing repression in China, which could last a decade. After that, who knows? I try not to make predictions about China, always citing the fact that the biggest threat to the Qing Dynasty turned out to be a man who thought he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, which nearly brought them down. You should always remember that China produces surprises.