For example, China’s bankruptcy law, enacted in 2006, required 12 years to negotiate, as factions within the Congress, the CCP and the executive branch struggled to balance the interests of workers and creditors. Likewise, China’s property law was debated for years, as conservative forces, with the support of various media outlets, resisted marketization and privatization in defense of older citizens whose livelihoods continued to depend on the “iron rice bowl” of state ownership.
In short, though China’s political system functions in a manner that is far more centralized than outlined in the country’s constitution, it provides an increasingly meaningful set of avenues through which citizens can exercise influence over political life.
Two of the most vexing official constraints on Chinese citizens are restrictions on movement from the countryside to cities and limits on the number of children born to couples. Both policies reflect the skewed distribution of China’s population, with more than 90 percent squeezed into the eastern half of the country, creating extreme congestion and the potential for political instability. However, responding to popular pressure, both restrictions have been substantially relaxed.
The Chinese leadership’s motivation in making such changes is not to embrace the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or to placate foreign demands: Bound by the goal of economic prosperity, China’s leaders let the genie of individual rights out of the bottle.
These same leaders now must tolerate — even facilitate — the creation of institutions to mediate the conflicts over these rights that inevitably result.
So long as China continues to offer basic economic rights to its citizens, these incremental changes, though slow, will drive the country’s gradual democratization. Where rights are well established, progress in building a civil society will surely follow.
Jun Zhang is a professor of economics and director of the China Center for Economic Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. Gary Jefferson is a professor of economics at the International Business School and chair of East Asian Studies at Brandeis University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate