The use of live ammunition by Hong Kong police against protesters fighting for freedom in the city on Tuesday is a sad but fitting way to mark the Chinese Communist Party’s 70th anniversary in power. . What was once thought to be a regime headed for the dustbin of history instead is poised to become a challenge for freedom across the globe.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the late 1990s, liberal democratic global capitalism looked to be the wave of the future. Scholars wrote about “the end of history” as the communist world collapsed and former authoritarian or socialist countries clamored to join the Western party. Communist China looked like just another one of the party-goers as it liberalized its economy and petitioned to join the World Trade Organization. The overconfident West said yes, certain that China would democratize its political system as its citizens grew wealthier.
The optimists took their cues from economic analysts who said that rising incomes were a precursor to political liberalization. This crude determinism seems quaint now, but it was common wisdom at the time. Back then, serious people said that economic growth would ensure that China would become a semi-democracy by 2015 and completely free polity by 2025. Such optimism continued to be commonplace even earlier in this decade.
It’s obvious this has not happened. China’s gross domestic product per capita approached $10,000 last year and is surely beyond that mark today — well past the level at which democratization was supposed to occur. Instead, we have the rule of Xi Jinping, who has repealed the term limits for Chinese heads of state, built a growing military, and repressed ethnic minorities and average Chinese alike.
The protests in Hong Kong are occurring because young Hong Kong residents can see the direction their country is heading. Under the “one country, two systems” doctrine that China promised to adhere to when it assumed control over the former British colony in 1997, Hong Kong has kept many personal and economic liberties. But it has never gained full democracy, and China has slowly exerted greater control through its proxies. Instead of China becoming more like Hong Kong, Hong Kong is becoming more like China — and that scares Hong Kong residents who like the free, Western life.
Activists Joshua Wong, Denise Ho, Brian Leung and Nathan Law say Hong Kong's protests are a clash of authoritarian and democratic values. (Joy Sharon Yi, Parjanya Christian Holtz, Kate Woodsome, Joshua Carroll, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)
Democracy optimists can argue the West should be patient — that democracy will come. In 2014, academics contended that dictators can slow the onset of democratic freedoms once a certain level of economic development has been reached, but it cannot prevent them. On this theory, the dictator or regime can suppress dissent, which then breaks out when the dictator dies or leaves office. If this theory is correct, the West should keep building China’s economy and wait for Xi to leave. Apres Xi, le deluge.
That Pollyannish view is belied by deeper analysis. Almost every country that has moved to a democracy has done so while part of the U.S.-led global trading system and under U.S.-led pressure. Countries such as Turkey, South Korea and Taiwan were all dependent upon U.S. trade and military protection and democratized in part because of U.S. pressure. Rich countries that the United States chose not to pressure, such as Singapore and the Arab petro-states, have remained semi-free or autocratic despite a level of economic development commensurate with other nations that have made the democratic leap.
The West, then, has a choice: If it continues on the pre-Trump path, it can hope for the best but will likely experience the worst. Western minds, money and markets will continue to fuel the rise of a techno-totalitarian state as it attempts to dominate the advanced technologies that will allow it to project its power at home and abroad. China will face demographic challenges in the middle of the century as its population ages and shrinks, but even so its economy would be huge. The OECD projects that China’s GDP will be exceed $62 trillion in 2060 in 2010 current dollars, more than 50 percent larger than the United States. China’s economy would be as large as that of the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and France combined. That would give the Chinese Communist Party a lot of global power.
The alternative is clear: If we want a democratic China, we need to push it rather than pull it. That means holding out access to global markets as a carrot dependent upon further political liberalization and pulling that carrot away if China refuses. That will inevitably cause short-term pain, but that pain pales in comparison to what could come if an unreformed China continues to grow.
History has many examples of economically growing authoritarian states that seek global power commensurate with their economic strength. Those conflicts tend not to end well. Better take note and prepare now, or the Chinese Communist Party may insist the West kowtow before it at its 100-year anniversary.