I was trolling around for interesting articles today and stumbled upon this piece about China and the prospects for democracy (or lack thereof). The author's a bit strident, and underplays the importance of economic factors in the relationship between China and the U.S., but she provides an interesting argument nevertheless. And it's additional fodder for an article I hope to write on the relationship between democracy and economic prosperity.
I think one of the major tragedies of the post-Soviet, or post-9/11, world is that authoritarian regimes are increasingly able to argue that democratic practice is fundamentally destablizing and jeopardizes economic development. Russia during the 90s, the color revolutions throughout Eurasia, the backsliding of democratic institutions in Latin America, and the halting steps in Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan allow authoritarian governments in Russia, China, and Venezuela to maintain tight political controls by terrifying their citizens with the idea of "chaos." It's stability and security over democracy, and that's a hard argument to crack.
But, I think the reasons why it must crack are the ones the author misses. She argues that,
"...the availability of coordination goods [free speech and the right to organize and protest; general human rights, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest; press freedom, etc.] affects democratization because they drastically influence the ability of political opponents to coordinate and mobilize but have little impact on the continued economic growth that is crucial for sustaining an authoritarian regime’s legitimacy."
I don't think that's correct. Press freedom is a principal channel for business intelligence (which is notably lacking in China - an important factor in the lack of large, genuinely international firms). The right to organize and protest is critical in providing the government with the necessary "input" and awareness of social concerns. At the moment, the CCP is very good at recognizing the problems out there and trying to respond to them. But that is because the government is unified behind a single vision and strategy of where it wants to go. If its intelligence channels breakdown, however, you will increasingly see a mismatch in terms of the priorities that the CCP assigns and those that the public wants. There is also the problem of externalities. Labor and the environment are in many ways sacrificed for the sake of productivity, and the problems that emerge because of that are put on either Chinese citizens or other countries. And in the end, the CCP system is simply inefficient. Why have the proactive monitoring, preventive measures, and bureaucracy if people can simply tell you what they want?
The answer, of course, is power. But to me, there is a deeper question here. Is it possible that capitalism and economic growth benefit from authoritarian regimes? Is there a positive correlation between the two? I think, academically, the jury is still out over this question. For every China, you have an India. For every Burma, you have a Bangladesh.
I think the issue fundamentally comes down to innovation. While China has avoided the post-Soviet Russia economic collapse, it's because its economy never had the cripplingly inefficient state industries that the latter had (although its banks are close), or they took measures to dismantle them. But to be a genuine world leader in the marketplace requires innovation, not just education. It requires the ability to risk capital on a grand scale and have the open space economically (and to a certain extent, therefore politically) to promote or shoot down interesting ideas. But the CCP has been very good about splitting off the economic lines of open dialogue from the political ones. They could do so with a wider space for innovation, but I am not certain.