The Potential for the Democratization of China

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  • 00:00 Changes to China's Government
  • 1:26 Problems with Democratization
  • 2:48 Repressive Towards Discontent
  • 3:28 Some Glimmers of Hope
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

China has more people than any other country on Earth and has made impressive economic changes over the past 50 years. However, those changes have not yet translated into political ones. This lesson examines the hope for democratization in China.

Changes to China's Government

Perhaps no country has changed as greatly over the past 50 years as China has. During the 1960s and '70s, had anyone suggested that the People's Republic of China would become a massive economic power, few people would have given the idea any real credence. After all, China was very much a developing country then and plagued by a government that seemed to make the most illogical market decisions possible. From sending factory workers to farm and making people smelt iron in their backyards, China was far from an economic threat.

Of course, all that has changed. China rivals the United States as the largest economy in the world and has an impressive growth rate to match. In places like Shanghai, skyscrapers tower over the old colonial Bund, while massive feats of engineering are required to simply provide electricity for the growing demand. All of this progress largely came due to the order of one man, Comrade Deng. Deng largely transformed China's economy but did relatively little for political rights.

The reason I say all this is simple is because China is capable of some pretty incredible changes almost overnight. It's just that the impetus for such change must be there across the entire society. Sadly, the movement towards greater democratization does not yet enjoy such broad-based support. However, there are still glimmers of hope that show that China may soon begin to move in that direction.

Problems with Democratization

Contrary to what many people think, China is not a homogenous state. Dozens of ethnic groups live in China, and historically speaking, they don't always get along. This is especially true of the groups that live near the Han, the dominant group in China. The ethnicity of the vast majority of Chinese is Han. However, there is still quite a bit of interethnic tension with the next largest groups. Principal among these are the Mongolians, the Tibetans, and the Uyghur people of Xinjiang.

Any movement towards greater democracy would have to include some sort of mechanism that would frankly keep these groups from simply splintering away. If that sounds crazy, remember that it was a movement towards democracy that allowed many discontent ethnicities in the Soviet Union to split away from Russia in 1990 and '91.

Further still is the fact that a lot of economic inequality exists throughout China. The money that funded those giant skyscrapers in Shanghai is at least partly made off the forced labor of people in sweatshop-style factories where there are serious allegations of people being locked in the factory during the workweek. Chances are that if they suddenly had the political power to do so, these people would vehemently oppose any legislation that would keep them in such servitude. In short, the powerful in China would face a great deal of instability if democracy were suddenly to spread wider.

Repressive Towards Discontent

In fact, that's perhaps how China is most notable in its crackdowns of protests. Famously, a pro-democracy campaign was put down in 1989 at Tiananmen Square. More recently, China has closed down all access to Tibet for periods of time, sent military units into Xinjiang, and has even begun to treat foreign religious missionaries as agents of discontent. This, in addition to the very openly known fact that China limits access to media and free press that would be critical of China. In fact, you couldn't even check much of your social media if you were a Chinese person in Beijing.

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