Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated in 2006 that democracy was “important for China to pursue” in order to “transform itself into a modernized country.”
During the following years, the Chinese Communist Party has hardly made great strides on behalf of human rights and democracy. But questions remain: since the introduction of capitalism in China in the 1990s, will the CCP be forced to change?
This paper discusses the role of China’s new entrepreneurs and emerging middle class that, while unlikely to directly challenge the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, may, with their very presence and growing population, cause CCP leaders to seek gradual and controlled democratic reforms in the interest of maintaining economic, social and political stability.
Three Major Opinions on China and Democratization
There is a clear divide in opinions regarding China’s middle and entrepreneurial class and its role in the advancement of democracy in China. The first commonly held opinion is that the middle class (especially prosperous entrepreneurs), which prefers both economic prosperity and government-enforced security and stability, is and will continue to be an intentional obstacle to democracy in China so that their property and earnings remain protected from workers and peasants.
The second commonly held opinion is that the middle class, with it’s newly granted economic freedoms and its impressive and increasing size, will follow similar patterns to those middle classes of Taiwan and South Korea, where, in both states, the middle class was successful in pushing for political democratization.
While only time can tell what the future holds for China and its relationship with democracy, what is most likely is that the very presence of the ever-growing Chinese middle class will be the trigger for Chinese Communist Party leaders to, in the interest of maintaining stability, pursue steady and deliberate democratic reforms, and thus, lead China towards the “Western Model.”
Modern china is experiencing high rates of economic growth and development as well as unprecedented commercialism and consumerism from its middle and entrepreneurial classes. One-hundred million strong, the young members of the Chinese middle class (nicknamed “Chuppies” or “Chinese Yuppies”) are quickly becoming “the most powerful consumer force in the world” (Fang, 26 April 2006). The Chuppies are driving the Chinese economy, and the result is that the middle class is growing stronger and stronger in economic power, and thus, social power, or at least the ability to spur social or political change (Gilley 63). More astounding is that the population of 100-million is expected to double in size within a mere ten years.
In China’s Democratic Future, Bruce Gilley argues that the Chinese middle class and entrepreneurs that have resulted from economic reforms by the CCP will spur future political reforms and democratization in China. The middle class will become an unstoppable proponent for political democratization in China.
Gilley believes that there are a shared set of values between capitalism and democracy. He argues that values of capitalist markets “share many of the underlying principles of democracy,” including “the equality of actors, fair and open competition, law-abidance, and freedom of choice” (Gilley 63). By intentionally instituting capitalist economic reforms to China, the Chinese Communist Party accidentally introduced subtle underlying democratic values to the Chinese middle class and entrepreneurs. Thus, Gilley believes that the economic power that the new middle class and entrepreneurs yield has “…empowered society, creating powerful agitators for change. The result is slowing making its presence felt in the political realm” (Gilley 63).
Gilley’s theory regarding the democratization of China has basically been the mainstream belief of recent American Presidents since the late 1980s. The foreign policy of the United States, as carried out by former Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have followed the commonly held belief that “…continued economic reform in China, and privatization in particular, will lead to political change” (Dickson 7). Policy towards China has included an increase of trade relations, the annual renewing of China’s most favored nation status, and China’s admittance into the World Trade Organization (Dickson 6-7).
Middle Class as an Emerging Partner to the CCP?
Bruce J. Dickson examines the evolving relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and private entrepreneurs in his book, Red Capitalists in China. Although many foreign observers expect economic change to lead to inevitable political change in China, Dickson believes that China’s entrepreneurs are willing partners — not an autonomous force of opposition — to the state. Dickson argues that this assumption has become a “truism” (Dickson 7). He states that “…economic development and modernization may facilitate democratization, but not directly and not always immediately” (Dickson 8).
Dickson’s contention is that the CCP is now largely connected to the middle class and that because the interests of the middle class and entrepreneurs are mostly economic, that they will favor continue to favor stable CCP rule rather than sweeping democratic reform that could spell disarray and ultimately affect their livelihoods:
“The CCP has become part of the normal order of things in China… There is a concern that if the CCP itself were to become weak or divided, and consequently unable to govern efficiently, the country itself might devolve into chaos.”
Dickson doubts the regularly perceived notion that economic development always and directly leads to democracy, stating that those beliefs are “linear and deterministic,” and that “democratization is not a natural result of economic growth, it is a political process fraught with conflict, negotiations, and occasionally setbacks” (Dickson 8). Asian-affairs expert Jonathan Unger agrees with Bruce Dickson’s belief that the Chinese middle class is opposed to and is hindering Chinese democratization (Unger 27). Unger touches upon two main points:
- First, that the educated middle class is “elitist” and is opposed to the peasant majority of 800 million Chinese gaining a democratic vote, because this could challenge the middle class’ control of their wealth and land.
- Second, Unger believes that the middle class is mostly concerned with stability, which allows potential for the continued growth of their economic prosperity; the middle class is less concerned with political freedoms in recent years, since the CCP has removed themselves from Chinese individuals’ daily affairs.
As long as their economic status is positive, the middle class has few qualms with the CCP (Unger 28). Unger concludes his argument by stating that the Chinese middle class is not a solution, but a barrier: “the Chinese Middle class has become a bulwark of the current regime. …don’t expect regime change or democratization any time soon. The rise of China’s middle class blocks the way” (Unger 31).
Gilley believes that the Chinese middle class will be a proponent for democracy in China because they will “… [Seek] protection for its assets and a voice for its interests” (Gilley 64). In response to Gilley, Unger and Dickson would likely argue that the interests of the CCP and the entrepreneurs are not separate, but have actually become one in the same:
“Contrary to the expectations of many observers… entrepreneurs in China do not exhibit the kinds of basic beliefs or political activism that would make them likely to be agents of political change. Instead, we may find that the CCP’s strategy of creating institutional links and co-optation as means of bolstering its authority is likely to be successful.”
While any of the above theories could be dismissed as premature, what is clear is that one of the many different groups in China will seek change, be it a revival of socialism and communism, complete democratization, further pursuit of market authoritarianism, or complete economic revolution towards the “Western Model.”
The East Asian Model
On another side of the spectrum, the “East Asian Model” includes core Confucian social values and a western-style liberal economics, and it is what distinguishes China from the West. The Confucian values of social order, respect for authority and stability are cited by the Chinese Communist Party as to why authoritarianism is needed in China.
As argued by Dickson and Unger, stability is of utmost importance for Chinese economic growth and thus, entrepreneurs and the middle class should be inherently opposed to democratization which directly threatens that stability (Dickson 8). These Confucian traditions directly relate to the individuals’ authority to the state, and there is no such thing as the Western value of individualism. The “East Asian Model” is a suitable argument for Dickson and Unger as to why the entrepreneurs and middle class should be in favor of the stability of CCP authoritarian rule, in conjunction with capitalist economics.
Bruce Gilley argues that market economies lead to the direct growth of a middle class and entrepreneurial class. With these classes comes a growth of civil and educated society. This assumption becomes truth when applied to modern China. However, Dickson’s argument regarding the CCP’s actions to integrate itself with the entrepreneurs in Red Capitalists will hinder any chance that the middle class has in applying pressure to the CCP for political democratization. China’s new entrepreneurs and will not challenge the rule of the CCP because their interests (stability and economic prosperity) directly correlate with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
Conclusions on the middle class and CCP
The very presence of the entrepreneurs and rapidly growing middle class will be cause for educated and far-sighted CCP officials to seek gradual and controlled democratic reforms in the interest of maintaining stability.
By seeking out these reforms, potentially threatening Chinese minority groups will see the CCP undertaking attempts to politically modernize. Their efforts will help maintain the Confucian value of respect for authority, order and stability. At the same time, the CCP can maintain future stability through these slow steps towards greater democratization in the present. The CCP must be farsighted and realize that heavy-handed rule and continued authoritarian style of governance might spur increased discontent amongst Chinese minority groups.
While there are two main patterns of thought regarding China’s middle class and its relation to Chinese democratization, perhaps the most likely outcome is the middle ground in between both theories: The presence of the growing Chinese entrepreneurs and middle class, who are gaining wealth and power, will influence CCP officials to introduce democratic reforms in the interest of maintaining long-term stability and prosperity.
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