Recently Professor David Shambaugh published an important – and as it turns out quite controversial – piece in the Wall Street Journal. The essay, entitled ”œThe Coming Chinese Crackup,” contends the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will soon be hanging on by a thread and that the ”œendgame” for the authoritarian party is in sight. Shambaugh is careful to point out that nothing is inevitable and that there are no certainties when it comes to anticipating when a regime will break-down (or as he puts it, ”œcrackup”). But the implications of his argument are clear, and made more emphatic given Professor Shambaugh’s stature in the field: the CCP might collapse soon, and political change (i.e. democracy) may be in the wings.

Quite understandably this essay set off a firestorm of speculation about if and when the CCP will collapse and if and when we might expect democracy to arrive in China, the one place in the world that seems to have resisted democratization successfully. After all, the Beijing Consensus is predicated on a model of non-democratic economic development. And it’s hard to argue the results in China.

There are many, however, who contest Shambaugh’s predictive logic. The Martin Jacques of the world, for instance, argue the CCP remains extremely strong. The Beijing Consensus remains a compelling model and authoritarianism in China will not abate any time soon. Indeed, Jacques would argue it is merely Western hubris that has us in the West continually looking for – hoping for – China’s coming collapse. China need not consider democracy because the CCP and China remain strong, unified, confident and enduring.

Here’s my problem with the debate about democracy in China. The entire China field, along with most of the foreign affairs establishment, pre-supposes that democracy will only come to China when the ruling regime is weak, when it’s on the verge of collapse and when China is in an irreversible decline. The prevailing conventional wisdom is that autocrats don’t give in to democracy unless they have become so thoroughly weakened they have no other choice. Hence in the China field, there are those who argue the CCP regime is so strong it need not democratize. On the other side, there are those who argue the CCP regime is so weak, it has to democratize. Either way, both arguments hinge on a ”œChina collapse” scenario.

But why do we presume that China – and the CCP – will only choose democracy when it is about to collapse? Is it not possible that an authoritarian regime may choose to concede democracy when it is still relatively strong? Dan Slater (of the University of Chicago) and I are currently writing a book in which we show that contrary to the received wisdom about why autocrats concede democracy – hello Mubarak – the modal pathway of democratic transition in Asia has been led by regimes that are not weak but instead very strong.

The Functionary

Our newsletter about the public service.
Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award. 

The Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan, a brutal dictatorial regime in the 1960s and 1970s, allowed the formation of an opposition party in 1986, lifted martial law in 1987 and conceded full democratic elections in 1992. And it made these concessions not when the ruling party was weak, but rather when the party was very strong. Indeed, the KMT conceded democracy not to concede defeat, but rather to remain dominant. And it has. Meanwhile, Taiwan has become a full-fledged democracy, in many ways the model democracy in East Asia.

Democracy came to Taiwan not because of collapse but, rather the opposite. This same logic – conceding from strength – explains the transitions in Korea, Indonesia, Japan, and it helps explains what we are currently seeing in Burma, and what we might see in Singapore.

Why not in China? It would seem to me that at the present moment the CCP has nothing to fear with democratization. Into the future, once the regime begins to ”œcrackup,” however, the CCP will have everything to fear about democratization. It has always struck me that if I was a dictator I’d prefer to end up like the KMT in Taiwan and not Mubarak in Egypt.

Photo by European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / modified from original

Joseph Wong
Joseph Wong is the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is also a Professor in the department of Political Science, where he holds a Canada Research Chair. From 2005 to 2014, Wong was the Director of the University of Toronto's Asian Institute. Wong thinks and writes about a range of global challenges: poverty and development; innovation policy; democracy and democratization; and global health. He is a keen advocate of global learning experiences for students, believing that young people should see with their own eyes rather than just read about their world.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this