Ever since Deng Xiaoping started opening China’s doors and building “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (a euphemism for authoritarian-style capitalism), it has been an article of faith in many Western quarters that China would have to adopt multi-party democracy if it wanted to sustain economic development. Almost 35 years after Deng’s momentous turn away from Maoism, the prophesy has not come true. In fact, an alternate narrative has taken shape, promoted as the China model or Beijing Consensus. Under this idea, rapid, sustained economic development and rising living standards are eminently possible under an authoritarian, one-party system. Such a model has obvious appeal not only to entrenched Party apparatchiks in Beijing but also to authoritarian rulers around the world.
The authors contributing to this issue of China Currents in one way or another touch on this decades old but intensely current question. Has China finally reached a tipping point where Beijing must fundamentally reform its political structure or face an end to what ranks as one of the most stunning examples of economic emergence in world history? Andrew Wedeman explains how corruption on a massive scale has become an integral part of the China economic model, but that it now threatens forward momentum. Yawei Liu, in his analysis of the recently held Party Congress, argues that the tipping point is indeed near. Vijaya Subrahmanyam makes a case for the benefits to Chinese companies and investors of permitting foreign companies greater market access — just the kinds of policies that would be more likely in a pluralistic political system.
Opinion piece writers Penelope Prime, John Garver, and William Foster also make arguments that relate to the question of political reform in China. Prime and Garver point out how China became a bogeyman in the recently concluded U.S. presidential election campaign. A democratic China would be far less likely to be framed in such a way, making needed bi-lateral cooperation much easier. Foster argues that the Chinese multinational Huawei has been unfairly made a scapegoat in U.S. efforts to focus attention on Chinese hacking and industrial espionage. Huawei, Foster argues, has technology the U.S. needs and is independent and powerful enough to withstand demands from China’s security apparatus. It is an argument that would be a much easier sell if China were to make a turn toward democracy.
The pictures used in this issue of China Currents are courtesy of David Hoyt.