The Democratization of China?

November 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

In the October issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a fascinating article on the similarities of 1970s South Korea with present-day China, written by Hahm Chaibong, President of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.  Hahm’s argument is pretty much encapsulated in the title, ‘China’s Future is South Korea’s Present’: In the 1960s and 70s, South Korea modernized under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, and that paved the way for democratization in 1987.  And thus, it provides a road map for China today.  In other words, a pretty familiar liberal argument: with economic liberalization comes political liberalization.

Park seized power in a military coup in 1963 and held on until he was assassinated by one of his advisors in 1979 in the midst of massive political, economic, and social unrest in the country as workers and students protested the oppressive political régime.  Park, however, was not your standard issue dictator.  Park’s main goal was economic modernization which would, in his estimation, lift his country out of poverty.  In order to do so, he ultimately made the decision to open up South Korea’s economy to the world, which forced South Korean corporations to not just modernize, but to be able to take on the world.  And this is how you came to drive a Hyundai and you’re reading this on a Samsung tablet.

Hahm then argues something similar could happen in China.  He notes that Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently had the nation’s constitution changed so he can maintain power perpetually.  He also notes the development of China’s economy in the past three decades, and the hyper-modernization of it.  Hahm argues that economic modernization in South Korea, combined with the massive unrest of the late 1970s/early 1980s led directly to democratization in 1987.  And he can see something similar happening in China.

I am not so certain.  South Korea of the 1980s and China of the 2010s are not the same.  And this is largely due to the power of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party.  This is not to say that Park didn’t have control.  It is to recognize that Xi and the CCP exist in a new era.

What Park did not have in the late 20th century was the technological capabilities of absolutism in the way that Xi and the CCP have today.  The internet, and specifically, state control of the internet, in China means that Xi and the CCP can control the population of the nation much easier.  The Chinese government continually pressures its techno-sector to be more ‘open’ and willing to share information with the government.  Chinese legislation means that data on Chinese consumers/citizens held by foreign corporations must be stored on servers physically located in China.  And the Great Firewall of China means that access to the wider internet is difficult.  For certain, tech-savvy Chinese use VPNs (which are technically illegal) to access the wider internet, but continued crackdowns on them and access to the net in general mean that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get around the Great Firewall.

This kind of control of the internet, and government dreams of amassing huge data sets on Chinese residents, mean that it has an almost unprecedented amount of control, and possible future control over its citizens.  In short, the Chinese government has the power to be in near complete control of China and Chinese citizens; Park never had this.

More to the point, when China had its moment similar to what Hahn describes in South Korea in the late 70s, culminating at Tiananmen Square in 1989, well, we know how that turned out.

While I would not consider myself an expert on China, I do teach Modern Chinese history.  And when I was in Beijing this past summer, teaching, I was fascinated by what I saw.  Chinese state-sponsodered capitalism had created an opulent consumer economy and culture in the capital.  Shopping malls were packed, luxury cars roamed the streets, Jingdong delivery vehicles were everywhere, and people wore expensive clothes.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, had a smart phone in their hands, and that’s how they conducted business, using WeChat’s platform for money transfers.  In other words, other than language, Beijing is looking increasingly Western, with the infiltration of Western corporations like Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and so on.

But what struck me the most was that a lot of my students did not recognize China as a totalitarian dictatorship.  Rather, they saw China as analogous to the United States, as a liberal, capitalist democracy.

Rather than share Hahn’s belief that China is ripe for an end to single-party rule, I see the CCP having delivered a masterstroke.  It has allowed capitalism within a set of parameters that has created an ability for the Chinese to buy things in a consumer economy.  They can enjoy great freedom as they shop in the malls, or order things on Jingdong or AliBaba, and as they sit in the big, expensive restaurants of the big cities, and so on.

I also teach a lot of US History. In the 1920s, our modern consumer capitalist culture was created with the birth of modern, psychology-based advertising.  Corporations could not persuade consumers to buy their goods, using science to do so.  And this is how we got our modern consumer culture.  But attendant to that was what many observers noted: Americans themselves changed.  Gone was the old Protestant work ethic and belief in hard work and sober, industrious, thrift.  Instead, Americans wanted to acquire things, ti spend their increasing disposable income, first on things that made their lives easier (like coffee machines and refrigerators) and then on luxuries made affordable (like radios).  One displayed one’s affluence through one’s stuff, in essence.

And so, when I look at China, I don’t share Hahm’s optimism.  I see people content with their consumer economy and I see the oppressive power of the CCP.   Taken together, I do not see an end to single-party rule any time soon.  Park’s South Korea is not an historical analogue of Xi’s China.

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§ 2 Responses to The Democratization of China?

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I’d also wonder a lot about differences in the political traditions and vocabulary.

    On a side note, sometimes those newly rich Chinese come visiting, and in the best nouveau riche tradition throw their weight around. Saw that happen in a Boston Chinatown restaurant, with a waitress as the victim. It goes without saying this behavior is not unique to the Chinese, otherwise we’d not have a French term for it!

    • I think there would be some differences in that Korea has essentially been a colony of China and Japan for most of its history. And, yeah, I taught those nouveau riches, the boys in particular were difficult.

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