Thu, Jul 29, 2004 - Page 9 News List

What will democracy mean in China?

Even the Chinese Communist Party is beginning to understand that economic change will bring about political change, but any transformation will probably be driven by the elite

By Francesco Giavazzi

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ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Fifteen years ago, Fang Hongin (方宏進) was protest-ing in Tiananmen Square. A few years ago, in Beijing, he ran one of China's most popular TV shows, each week testing the lim-its of the government's indulgence.

Today, he runs Dragon TV (東方衛視), Shanghai's leading station, and advertisements featuring him hanging from the city's skyscrapers.

Hu Shuli (胡舒立) belongs to the same generation: The journalist whom The Economist calls "China's most dangerous woman" moved from her first job, with the Chinese Communist Party press, to editing Caijing (財經雜誌), a business magazine that runs stories on corruption, exposing businessmen and public officials.

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret these experiments with a free press as signs that democracy in China is near. The party allows Caijing to expose corruption because this helps it to stop China's most serious disease.

"The first civil right is getting out of poverty," says Long Yongtu (龍永圖), one of China's WTO negotiators.

"In 15 years, we got 200 million people out of poverty; 700 million Chinese today have access to electricity, an unknown luxury 15 years ago. This is why our priority is growth: everything else, frankly, is less important," Yongtu Long says.

Growth, however, does only mean getting people out of poverty. Twenty-five years ago, China had a more egalitarian society than Sweden; today there is vast inequality between city and countryside, between the western provinces and those bordering the Pacific ocean, and within cities, which attract a constant flow of peasants looking for jobs. Indeed, China's income distribution today looks more like that of Brazil than that of Sweden.

But more inequality also means more opportunities: Becoming rich today in China remains very difficult, but it is no longer impossible -- just walk into one of the pubs of downtown Shanghai. Inequality can be accepted, but not if it is the fruit of corruption, and this remains China's foremost social problem, which the party has been unable to eradicate, despite Caijing's exposes and the death penalty.

Can China really do without democracy? A few years ago, Fareed Zakaria, then an editor of Foreign Affairs, argued against the priority normally given to democracy, simply defined as the possibility of choosing political leaders through free elections. The world is full of democracies, he argued, that routinely violate human rights. "Elections are of little use if democratically elected governments limit the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary," he said.

"There is certainly more freedom in Shanghai than in Moscow," says a professor from Tsinghua University in Beijing, echoing Zakaria.

She is probably right, although India reminds us that sometimes elections are a powerful and effective mechanism to correct the path a country has taken. India's economy is growing almost as fast as China's, with a similar increase in inequality and, to some extent, corruption. But Indian voters have turned against this model. As a result, India's economy is likely to slow.

It is hard to tell whether this is good or bad. It is probably bad in the short run, but who knows about the longer term? The point is that questions such as "Are we creating too much inequality?" cannot even be asked in China.

The upshot is that whenever a problem gets out of hand, the turnaround comes too late and is dramatic. This is why China cannot shelve the problem of its transition to democracy.

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