Can Chinese Prosperity Yield Democracy?

When it comes to China, the Clinton administration has developed its own theory of evolution.

It is an almost religious belief that democracy will come to the world’s most populous country after it gets richer. The theory was put on display in a congressional hearing one day last week in a way that underscored the strengths, weaknesses and dangers of the administration’s approach.

The setting was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Stanley O. Roth, the new assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, was giving his first testimony on China.

“The recent history of Asia shows that over time, economic development leads to growth of an educated and aware middle class and of a civil society,” Roth told the senators. “This in turn leads, as it has in Korea and Taiwan, to democracy. This is the path we want to encourage China to travel.”


What Roth was saying was not startlingly new; indeed, he was giving voice to what is conventional wisdom among American foreign policy specialists these days. China, by this theory, is eventually going to evolve from its Leninist system to democracy, much as South Korea and Taiwan opened their political systems in the 1980s.

Roth, an unusually forthright, down-to-earth pragmatist, was in one respect being bold. He did not shrink from talking about Taiwan, which China considers part of its own territory. The State Department has not always done so. One long 1995 report on the subject of democracy in Asia avoided any mention of Taiwan, apparently for fear of irritating Beijing.

Moreover, when the administration’s new point man for Asia was invited to make excuses for China’s continuing repression, he refused to do so.

The invitation came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). With the retirement of former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), she has emerged as the Senate’s strongest supporter of the Chinese government. At congressional hearings, she often argues for greater American understanding of the policies of the Chinese regime.

Last week, Feinstein cited China’s much-ballyhooed recent experiment with small-scale village elections to assert that “more people vote in China today than do in the United States.”

She didn’t mention that the Chinese Communist Party had just selected Jiang Zemin as the country’s leader in the time-honored fashion, at a party congress in which the Chinese people had no vote or say.

Feinstein asked Roth whether China’s tough stance on human rights was “related to their concerns about stability, the fact that with privatization there has come . . . large numbers of people, unemployed, flooding the cities.”

Roth wasn’t buying this argument. “That may be one of the factors affecting their considerations, but I don’t think it’s a factor we can accept. I mean, I can recall hearing exactly the same arguments being made by Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines talking about stability, or Chun Doo Hwan in [South] Korea.”


Both Marcos and Chun were authoritarian Asian rulers pushed by the United States to give way to democracy. Thus, Roth’s message seemed to be that the United States is going to remain firm in its avowed commitment to democracy as a goal for China, as it has for other Asian countries. At least on the rhetorical level, the administration is not willing to accept or make excuses for China’s eradication of dissenting points of view.

So far, so good. The problem lies in the administration’s assumption that China will evolve in the fashion that South Korea and Taiwan have, by opening up to democracy as the country gets richer.

In believing that, the administration ignores the differences between China and these other countries. For one thing, South Korea and Taiwan were both aligned with the United States during the Cold War and were heavily dependent upon America for their security.

In the 1980s, when America urged these two governments to democratize, they felt compelled to comply. In the case of South Korea, the Reagan administration, at a key juncture in 1987, all but insisted that Chun give way to elections. China isn’t in the same boat as these two countries; it is bigger, more powerful and militarily independent of the United States.


Not everyone believes in the Clinton administration’s theory that wealth will lead to democracy. Across Capitol Hill on the same day as Roth’s testimony, Sidney Jones, the director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, was offering a darker point of view.

“One of the lessons that parts of Asia are teaching us is that it is possible to be abusive of basic rights like freedom of expression and [also] rich,” Jones told a hearing of a House subcommittee.

She was talking above all about Singapore. But what she said could apply to China as well. Who can say for sure that China will not emerge in a couple of decades as a relatively prosperous nation that nevertheless continues to maintain an authoritarian government? Who can be certain a wealthier China won’t still wipe out political opposition, much as Singapore does now?

That’s a gloomier possibility for China that the Clinton administration doesn’t seem to want to contemplate.


Jim Mann’s column appears in this space every Wednesday.