Why democracy in China isn’t dead.

Why China is closer to real democracy than India.


Democracy is dead in China. That’s what you hear.  President Xi Jinping is rolling back political freedoms and wants to rule forever so democracy doesn’t stand a chance. 


We made our award-winning short documentary film, Democracy Road, in part to make the point that we actually aren’t very good at spreading or even assessing democratization around the world so maybe we ought to rethink our approach, including how we assess China.  We further make the point that we think China, which largely lacks political freedom, is actually closer to real democracy than India, often called “the largest democracy in the world.” 


We can break our argument down into five main points as follows:


Democracy is difficult (and we aren’t good at spreading it)

We tried to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan and didn’t come close, which is typical of just about every time we intervene in a country and press it to hold elections.  Some thought the Arab Spring would produce democracy after throwing out the tyrants.  It didn’t.  Considering that only 15% of the people in the world live in an advanced, effective democracy, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  If you look around the world today, and take into account all of history, two conclusions seem inescapable.  Democracy is very difficult.  We aren’t very good at spreading it.  Given the above, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest we might want to reconsider our approach to supporting democracy.  After all, we don’t much reason to be confident in what we’ve done in the past. 


Elections aren’t enough (what about the rule of law, etc.)

We tend to equate elections with democracy.  If a country has a democracy, it is democratic.  That is far from true.  There is a pattern among many so-called “democracies”—endemic corruption, police coercion, extra-judicial violence among security forces, criminal involvement in government, jailing and general harassment of the opposition, stifling of dissent, etc.  India suffers from all of these ills, as do many, many other countries.  Scholars have coined terms like “ineffective” democracy or “dysfunctional” democracy to describe these situation.  All of these countries suffer from similar ills, including weakness in the rule of law.  If we are going to set the bar this low, then democracy will lose all meaning. 


Poor countries make for bad democracies

Dysfunctional democracies all have one major thing in common—poverty.  The problems described above relative to the rule of law are common among all poor, less developed countries, whether they have elections or not.  In contrast, advanced, prosperous countries, while not perfect, do not have these problems nearly as severely as poor countries.  The pattern is remarkably consistent.   A close look at the facts reveals that there is clearly a correlation between economic development and democracy and that less developed countries aren’t right or ready for democracy. 


Capitalism paves the way to democracy (elections don’t come first)

Capitalism paves the way to democracy.  Economic development via the free markets comes first, elections come later.  That’s one of the major conclusions we need to reach as we consider how to rethink our approach to supporting democracy.  The fact that poor countries make for bad democracies and there is clearly a link between prosperity and democracy strongly suggests this conclusion.  So does the fact that, over the last fifty years, societies that have emphasized economic development first and saved elections for later, like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, have outperformed, both economically and politically, those that have focused on elections first and economic reform later, like India, Kenya, and Brazil.  There’s even research on the relationship between culture and democracy that points directly to this conclusion.  Elections are important, but they don’t come first. 


When we think of spreading and supporting democracy, we tend to focus on the leaders.  Can we find leaders who will hold elections?  But democracy is not a top-down system.  It is a bottom-up system, built on the people’s demand for and ability to support democracy.  All of the above, plus extensive research, shows that, in poor countries, people aren’t culturally ready for democracy.  They don’t see themselves as empowered.  The rule of law is weak, not just at the top of government but throughout society.  Tolerance, individualism, respect for the rights of minority groups, are all low.  Belief in the absolute authority of the rulers is high.  These cultural tendencies will not support democracy.  But cultures can change.  History and research shows that economic development via the free market changes cultures in a way that leads to democracy.  People become empowered economically and then demand empowerment politically while the free market rewards honesty and fairness and strengthens the rule of law.  That’s how it really works.  Change the people first.  Then come the elections. 


This is why we are saying China is closer to democracy than India, because its people are becoming more democratic, even if its leaders aren’t.  This is also why we are saying that we need to rethink our approach to democracy. We aren’t saying that rolling back political freedoms is a good.  We’re just saying it isn’t the only important factor.  If China stays on the path to economic liberalization and growth, it will be making progress toward real democracy.  That’s our main point.


Please look for additional essays that delve into more detail on all of the above topics and the broader issue of how we need to rethink our approach to supporting democracy around the world.