Prospects for a More Democratic China?

Hillary Clinton’s decision to choose East Asia as the destination for her first foreign visit after becoming the U.S. Secretary of State reflects an acute realization that Asia has already replaced Europe as America’s most important partner and competitor. Within Asia, China is the rising giant. Already the world’s third largest economy, China will quite likely overtake Japan by 2015 and the U.S. by 2025-2030. China’s economic future appears pretty clear. However, what about its political future? Given China’s enormous and growing clout, the answer to the second question is probably as important for the rest of the world as the answer to the first. We see reasons for hope. Clearly, China remains firmly committed to a one-party political system and a press which must serve national interests rather than be guided by notions such as freedom of expression. Notwithstanding these commitments, China’s leaders are acutely aware of several new and irreversible realities: growing decentralization of economic power, rapidly rising education levels, and the even more rapid spread of communications technologies. More than 250 million Chinese now use the Internet and almost 600 million Chinese are mobile phone users. Both numbers are rising. The ongoing roll-out of 3G technologies will further increase the ability of China’s citizens to share audio, video, and other types of data at high speeds on mobile devices. China’s leaders are also aware that, given these developments, the only way that the country can remain socially stable is to ensure that the government and the Communist Party of China become more transparent, more responsive, and more process-driven than in the past. We consider it important that, in their speeches to the 17th Party Congress in 2008, China’s top leaders used the term democracy repeatedly and emphasized that the Party must become more transparent and more responsive. Important new laws now start as drafts posted on government websites. Often, these drafts receive several hundred thousand comments and suggestions from the public. Many of these suggestions do get incorporated into the revised bills before they become the law. And, the Party itself – comprising nearly 75 million well-educated and on average more affluent citizens – has started to experiment with contested elections. None of these developments imply that China will adopt a Western-style democratic system anytime soon. They do foretell, however, that the China of 2020 could be far more democratic than that of today. Would you agree? Or, do you think that we are being overly optimistic?

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