Is lack of democracy a problem for China?

Young Chinese middle class
Image caption Young middle-class Chinese are more questioning of the state

Some commentators have argued over the years that, whatever its material growth, China will always be held back by its lack of democracy.

I would argue, with Winston Churchill, that, for all its defects and annoyances, democracy does offer a good working system for modern states, leaving citizens free to develop while providing a safety valve and the chance of peaceful changes of government.

It cannot stand alone - independent rule of law and a certain degree of tolerance are also essential.

In the case of China, the reality is that some essential building blocks are absent were the country to wish to head in the direction of competitive democracy.

The idea of the independent rule of law is lacking - rather, China has long embraced the creed of legalism, which means using the law to implement the decision of the rulers rather than enabling it to be a means of challenging top-down authority.

Then the historical backdrop is missing - the only quasi-free national elections ever held in China were in 1912 and ended with the leader of the ruling party being assassinated, after which a military strongman exerted his grip on the country.

When the Communist Party talks of democracy, what it means is internal procedures to make its rule more effective.

Village elections are held, but the list of candidates is closely vetted.

At the other end of the scale, the choice of members of the ruling Politburo and its supreme Standing Committee is decided behind closed doors at a party congress every five years.

Some commentators see this in a positive light. China, they hold, does not need the messy business of open democracy and is better served by the rule of an elite selected by the monopoly party which, they add, is far more efficient than Western governments.

That argument hardly holds water on closer examination away from the usual cliches about China's Confucian system.

Economic success

China has, indeed, amazed the world by its economic growth since the 1980s.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Xi Jinping faces big challenges

Combining abundant cheap labour, cheap capital and welcoming export markets, it has pulled more people out of poverty in a shorter time than any country in history.

In the process, Deng Xiaoping's target of ensuring continuing one-party rule by making the Communist machine the vehicle by which growth was delivered gave the regime a new legitimacy after the shambles of the Mao Zedong era.

But now the leadership under Xi Jinping, who is both Party General Secretary and State President as well as holding five other top jobs, faces a different kind of challenge to the one confronting Deng when he won out in the power struggle that followed Mao's death in 1976.

The 1980s equation of cheap labour, cheap capital and export market no longer works - wages have gone up; so has the cost of credit; and demand from developed markets is not what it used to be.

China's financial system cannot cope with the size of the economy.

There is huge excess capacity. Deflation is a major constraint.

Political reform is off the agenda - dissidents have been jailed and official media thunder against allegedly Western-inspired threats to the system.

But it is neither around the economy nor the political sphere that the powerful current leadership may face its biggest test.

Evolving society

Chinese society has evolved hugely with material growth.

So have everyday problems, exacerbated by the lack of effective controls as crude growth has been the leitmotif of official policy and promotions of officials.

As a result, China has developed the worst environmental crisis of any major economy.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Three Gorges Dam has led to water pollution

Life expectancy in northern cities affected by bad air is estimated to be 5.5 years fewer than in cleaner southern centres.

Nobody would think of drinking from the tap - water is so toxic in some areas that it cannot be used for industry. Major lakes are clogged by algae.

Behind the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, a huge stagnant reservoir is clogged with waste from up-river.

Deposits from factories and river-borne pesticides have led to an estimated 10% of farmland being unsafe for crop cultivation.

Food safety is a constant cause for concern, affected by everything from sausages containing putrid meat and poisoned baby milk formula to water melons exploding because of chemicals pumped into them.

Safety standards are low and often not enforced.

Citizens lack means of recourse through accountable bodies or the law.

The current major anti-corruption campaign has shown just how enormous graft had become - the associates of one major former official are said to have amassed assets of $30bn (£20bn), while it took investigators more than a week to count the wealth of a former senior general.

BBC Democracy Day

  • Democracy Day takes place on Tuesday 20 January, across BBC radio, TV and online
  • A look at democracy past and present, encouraging debate on its role and future
  • 2015 marks the 750th anniversary of the first parliament of elected representatives at Westminster
  • It also sees the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta - a touchstone for democracy worldwide
  • Go to the BBC News website's Democracy Day page, for analysis, backgrounders and explainers on the debate

People increasingly ask the "Why?" questions: "Why do I have to wear a face mask when I go out, why can't I drink water without boiling it, why is imported food less dangerous than domestic products?"

Such concerns are felt in particular by the younger generation of the urban middle class.

Social media - China has some 600 million web users - and foreign travel - the Chinese make 100 million visits abroad each year - spur such questioning.

That leads logically to the question of whether crude economic expansion is enough or if, having achieved so much, China needs to deal with the problems spawned by growth.

Hybrid response

That is likely to be a major challenge for Xi Jinping as he tightens his grip on political power.

Image caption Air pollution is a significant risk to health

Given his insistence on Communist Party supremacy, his answer will not be a lurch towards competitive democracy in which citizens will be given their say over who rules them.

It will be a hybrid response, but the clock is ticking. Finding policies that satisfy the population will be key to social stability.

This is not democracy, but shows that, even in a top-down one-party state, popular concerns matter - and cannot be waved away by simplistic assertions that China has found a superior way of running the state and that its past ensures its future.

The proof will be in the party's ability to deliver on the social and quality-of-life front - and that is one of the biggest tasks for any ruling administration on Earth.

Jonathan Fenby is author of Will China Rule the World?, Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today and the Penguin History of Modern China.

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