Fri, Jun 23, 2006 - Page 8 News List

China just delaying the inevitable

By Pei Minxin 裴敏欣

Communist China has experienced a monumental capitalist revolution in the last two decades, with an economy that is now six times bigger than it was 20 years ago. A minor player in the global economy in the 1980s, China today is the world's third-largest trading power. But if these stunning economic statistics make you think that so much capitalist development must also have brought more democracy to China, think again.

Most Westerners believe in a theory of liberal evolution, according to which sustained economic growth, by increasing wealth and the size of the middle class, gradually makes a country more democratic. While the long-run record of this theory is irrefutable, China's authoritarian ruling elite is determined to hold on to power and has been smart enough to take steps to countering the liberalizing effects of economic development.

Thus, for all its awe-inspiring economic achievement, China has made remarkably little progress in political liberalization. Indeed, judging by several key indicators, progress toward democracy in China has stalled.

For instance, in the mid-1980s, Chinese leaders seriously discussed and later drew up a blueprint for modest democratic reforms. Today, the topic of political reform is taboo. Nearly all the major institutional reforms, such as strengthening the legislature, holding village elections, and building a modern legal system, were launched in the 1980s. Since the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 1989, however, not a single major democratic reform initiative has been implemented.

Instead of democratic transition, China has witnessed a consolidation of authoritarian rule. Since 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been pursuing a two-pronged strategy: selective repression that targets organized political opposition and assimilation of new social elites.

This strategy emphasizes the maintenance of an extensive law enforcement apparatus designed to eliminate organized opposition. Huge investments have strengthened the People's Armed Police (PAP), a large anti-riot paramilitary force whose specialty is the quick suppression of anti-government protests by disgruntled industrial workers, farmers and urban residents. Frequent deployment of the PAP is a major reason why the tens of thousands of collective protests that occur each year (74,000 in 2004 and 86,000 last year) have had a negligible impact on China's overall stability.

To deal with new emerging political threats, such as the information revolution, the Chinese government has spent mightily on manpower and technology. A special 30,000-strong police unit monitors and screens Internet traffic, advanced technology is deployed to block access to overseas Web sites considered "hostile or harmful" and Internet service and content providers, both domestic and Western, must comply with onerous restrictions designed to suppress political dissent and track down offenders. The regime has even conducted multi-agency exercises to test whether different government bodies could cooperate closely to keep "harmful information" off the Internet during an emergency.

Having learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union that a bureaucratic ruling party must co-opt new social elites to deprive potential opposition groups of leaders, the Communist Party has conducted an effective campaign of expanding its social base. The urban intelligentsia and professionals have been pampered with material perks and political recognition, while new private entrepreneurs have been allowed to join the CCP.

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