Thoughts on China’s Political Development

The end of history
Starting with The End of History, where it is argued that variation of liberal democracy will be the final form of government. One key premise in that thesis is: successful industrialization will inevitably create an educated middle class that demands democracy. An indicator of when they will happen, as noted by Francis Fukuyama is when the country have around USD6,000 purchasing power (in 1992 PPP USD). This premise has largely been correct since its pronouncement, with the exception of Singapore and a handful of resources-rich states where purchasing power could increase purchasing power without actual industrialization. As of now China is at USD7,400 per capita PPP which is the equivalent of about USD4,700 in 1992, the index base of the USD6,000 figure. While there is some low-level movement towards democracy, its has largely been negligible. Freedom house gave China the exactly the same score in 2002 and 2010: political rights 7 and civil liberty 6 (7 being least free, 1 most free). Some have suggested (as have Fukuyama) instead of democracy, Chinese communist party (CCP) might push towards a soft-authoritarian political system akin to Singapore, the only industrialized exception to the stated premise. Many question the viability of Singapore’s system for China. They argue Chin’s enormous population and geography will make it very difficult for CCP to micro manage like Singapore’s People’s Action Party, many attributes to their success. This concern has not stop CCP from sending around 9,000 officials, since 1992, to Singapore to learn their trade. Many of graduates have then gone on to become vice provincial governors and other high-ranking positions (source).
Hundreds of Singapore
To get around the size issue, CCP is concentrating management capacity at the level of Singapore size administrative units, in the hundreds. As you can see in the chart below, local government spending as a portion of total government spending is gradually but steadily increasing. Unfortunately, the data provide by the National Bureau of Statistics of China lumps various levels of local government together (provincial, prefectural, municipal, township and village). Base on my conversation with Yinan Luo a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese history at Harvard, most of the local spending is done at the municipal level. In contrast, United States Federal government spent 46% of total government expenditure in 2007, while state and local government accounts for 24% and 30% respectively. With this model, CCP can possibly avoid the failing of giant authoritarian state (Soviet Union) and maintain political dominance and economic management capacity even as industrialization spread beyond few coastal cities.

Democratization as a pressure valve
This does not necessarily mean China will not democratize. Democratization will continue to be instituted in isolated pockets where CCP’s economic policy is insufficient to maintain government legitimacy and release to public pressure for reform. In another word, CCP’s democratization strategy is, we will try to keep you economically satisfied in exchange for power, if we fail, then we will give you power at the isolated local administrative level, so you can blame yourselves.

China the Sphinx
China’s political system will be like a composite of European Union, United States, and Singapore. Like EU it will be a giant single currency market with varying local political systems and conditions; Unlike EU, China’s central government can effectively redistribute revenue to off-set regional imbalances similar to US Federal government (in 2007 China and US central government collects and redistribute 54% and 49% of the total revenue respectively); Like Singapore, municipals will be micro managed by government officials in on site.

Obstacle to this system
It is uncertain, whether this political system will work for XInjian, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. CCP might fear using native to manage those regions may have the desire for secession. However, if Central government are to assign individuals to lead, micro management capacity might be doubt. Moreover, while urbanization and people mobility, in general, is beneficial to the system, it could potentially raise management complications if the government can’t keep track of people. Shouldn’t be a major concern, though, CCP already routinely control mobility with HuKou System.

End of History no more?
Not necessary. The sphinx system will serve the purpose of delaying the eventual decline of CCP dominance and phase in democratic government one local area at a time. Its should not halt the overall democratizing trend. There is no reason to believe that CCP is incorruptible and people won’t eventually increase their pressure for the government to be accountable and replaceable, democratically. To end this post I will leave you with a quote from Hu speaking in Hong Kong in 2010:

There is a need to…hold democratic elections according to the law; have democratic decision-making, democratic management as well as democratic supervision; safeguard people’s right to know, to participate, to express, and to supervise.

And an essay from Amartya Sen: Democracy as an Universal Value.


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