Reform or Revolution?

Published on Author Mike

Foreign Affairs‘s January-February 2013 issue has an interesting piece by Huang Yasheng, “Democratize or Die: Why China’s Communists Face Reform or Revolution.” (There’s a companion piece, “The Life of the Party: The Post-Democratic Future Begins in China” by Eric X. Li.)

We don’t have time to pursue questions of the interactions of economic performance and politics in any depth. However, if China’s political system is unstable – and I interpret the actions of the leadership as reflecting such a belief – then things that give people greater voice (a more finely spun web of business connections, better communications) and greater interest (externalities matter more, both due to their severity and because with higher incomes, it’s harder to buy people off with growth, and more people perceive externalities as a problem making mere repression harder). I can’t assess the larger political science literature, but see references in these two articles.

In any case, you have a paper, and then our next course segment is on industry, completing an agriculture-migration-industry structure (ignoring services, for many reasons). Peasants have little voice; the government has so far succeeded in keeping them from bringing their problems to the cities (in the sense of bottling up protests so that they remain out of sight, and hence politically irrelevant). But industry can be concentrated, middle-class societies produce big firms, and big firms gain political clout. Peasants in a village here and there can rise up; Beijing doesn’t care. But workers at a large urban enterprise would not be so readily handled.

I believe that important. In representative systems (I know about Japan, the US and the EU) rural areas are over-represented. In authoritarian systems, it is urban interests that dominate. But as incomes rise, well, can one-party rule prove robust? I’ve heard predictions to the contrary since 1988, in the run-up to the Tiananmen student protests. Fifteen years is a long time. So take Li’s “devils advocate” position seriously.

2 Responses to Reform or Revolution?

  1. While there are a host of differences, I can’t help but contrast the current Singaporean (or the ROC) system against that of the PRC. Singapore has managed to maintain a single party system for ~30(if we calculate developed-nation status to have been attained in the 1980s) since development, and shows little sign of shifting in the near future, with the opposition holding a mere 6 (voting) seats out of 87 in parliament. While Taiwan has a more multiparty system, the KMT has managed to stay in power for far longer. Together, these at least present a counterexample of sorts, proving that it is not impossible for the CCP to maintain political hegemony in the short to medium term.

    The arguments presented by both Li and Huang both possess merit, however, much of what has been said can essentially be reduced to ‘all systems have problems’, which is not a particularly insightful revelation. Without any nation managing to approach the theoretically optimal state of government, arguments are all easily deflected by counterexample and relative comparisons. From an inherently biased perspective, the article presents a curiously optimistic conclusion that dismisses the current issues facing the western world out of hand.

    Interestingly, in a related search, I’ve encountered data suggesting that China’s Gini for 2012 is 0.438, as compared to the US’ 0.468. While these are derived from different sources (here and here), the (lack of) distance between US and PRC data presents a damning indictment on the upper moral ground that American commentators often speak from.

  2. Sweden and Japan have both had a single party dominating the post-1950 period. How to legitimize rule in a stable manner is perhaps a useful way to phrase the question.