Researching the politics of development



Summary of the ESID Annual Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture – How did the West get China wrong?

Professor Yuen Yuen Ang
31 October 2018
For decades, Western observers expected that as China’s economy liberalises and prospers, it would eventually and inescapably become a democracy. Yet, by 2018, such hopes were all but dashed, particularly when Chinese President Xi Jinping ended constitutional term limits on his presidency. This move set off alarm bells. The Economist dedicated a whole issue to “How the West Got China Wrong.” But the magazine doesn’t actually explain “how”. What it expresses is panic and befuddlement, garnished with impassioned pleas to contain China’s rise. Its real title should be “Yikes, the West Got China Wrong!”
So how did the West really get China wrong? Was it wrong to expect that increased prosperity will bring about democratisation, as modernisation theorists like Ronald Inglehart have long argued? Does China demonstrate that it is possible to achieve economic liberalisation and growth without political reforms, therefore rendering its development model a fundamental threat to liberal democratic values?
The West is wrong about China – but not in the ways we normally think. What most observers fail to grasp is that China has already pursued significant political reforms and has taken on democratic characteristics since 1978. Although the reformist leadership under Deng Xiaoping spurned Western-style democracy, it does not mean that no political changes occurred. Instead, the reformers substituted conventional political reforms, such as multi-party elections and formal protection of individual rights, with bureaucratic reforms.

Crowds walk below neon signs on Nanjing Road. The street is the main shopping district of the city and one of the world’s busiest shopping districts.

Unlike in Western democracies, there is no separation between political parties and public administration in China. Bureaucratic reforms are in effect political. In the reform era, bureaucratic reforms were rolled out from the highest echelons of power to the lowest levels of the administration, down to petty bureaucrats and police officers who patrol the streets. Examples of bureaucratic reforms include mandatory retirement, changing the targets assigned to local leaders, altering how rank-and-file public employees are paid, and so forth.
These bureaucratic reforms did not attain the full range of benefits associated with democracy; for example, they do not protect minority rights or freedom of speech. Nevertheless, they injected accountability, competition, and limits on power into China’s single-party autocracy, creating a unique hybrid: autocracy with democratic characteristics.
What has accounted for China’s economic dynamism in the reform era are these “democratic characteristics”, not autocracy per se. If state planning and authoritarian leadership were all it takes to achieve economic development, China would long ago have prospered under Mao – yet the outcome was the opposite.
In the past years, the Xi administration has backpedalled on the democratic characteristics laid down by Deng. This could be an attempt to concentrate personal power, a reflection of Xi’s and his allies’ own misunderstanding about China’s success formula, or both. But make no mistake: China’s experience proves that even an autocracy requires the injection of democratic characteristics in order to rule effectively and support vibrant markets.
Western strategists are not only wrong about China, they are wrong in the way they understand regime types. By insisting on a binary concept of regimes – either a country is a democracy or an autocracy – they miss all the hybrids in between. For a long time, many policymakers have also erroneously insisted on exporting forms of democracy, while ignoring alternative means of achieving the substance of democracy.
In short, for anyone concerned about politics, here are three common fallacies we must correct.

  1. It is not true that China conducted economic reforms without political reforms. It has already pursued political reforms, just not in the ways Western observers expected.
  2. China’s development success does not prove that autocracies are superior to democracies. On the contrary, its experience reveals that even autocracies require democratic qualities in order to rule effectively.
  3. Countries are not either democracies or autocracies. Even among non-electoral autocracies (think North Korea, Mao-era China, reform-era China), the differences are huge and consequential. It is high time to discard an overly simplistic, black-and-white understanding of regime types.

Related readings:

  • The Economist, How the West Got China Wrong | Link
  • YY Ang. “Autocracy with Chinese Characteristics: Beijing’s Behind-the-Scenes Reforms,” Foreign Affairs, Issue on Is Democracy Dying? | PDFLink

This blog is based on Professor Ang’s ESID Annual Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture at the Global Development Institute on 31October 2018. Follow her on twitter @yuenyuenang.