It is no question whether China is a democracy or not. The answer is simple: China is an autocracy. With a polity score of -7 (on a scale of autocratic -10 to 10 democratic), most people would be surprised to see evidence of democratic backsliding in China. Yet, three recent events seem to argue the opposite.
Just the other day, China’s National People’s Congress, a body of nearly 3000 delegates voted unanimously with 99.8% approval to amend the constitution and get rid of term limits for the president. This vote was followed by Chinese state media touting the vote as a necessary “common-sense” amendment in order to bring symmetry to the positions of President, General Secretary of the Communist Party, and chairman of the Central Military Commission, all currently held by Xi Jinping. After the vote, China’s social media censors also banned open discussion of the decision including phrases such as “reelection,” “proclaiming oneself an emperor” and “I don’t agree,” as well as pictures of Winnie the Pooh who shares similar physical features to Xi according to many Chinese internet users.
While the decision to get rid of term limits is a clear consolidation of power by Xi Jinping, this event is merely a small step in a larger consolidation of power. While selection for offices is not democratic (i.e. the Communist party of China selects all the officials), there was at least a sense of intraparty democracy. In 2007, a group of 400 Communist Party elites met at the Communist Party Congress and, for the first time, used straw poll voting to recommend provisional candidates for the Chinese Politburo, a group of twenty-five members tasked with steering the country. In 2012, this group of elite officials met again to vote on members of the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven member council that acts as the highest governing council of the Communist Party and China. This run of intraparty democracy was short-lived, however, as during the 2017 Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping decided to get rid of the method of straw poll voting and decided to hand select members of the new Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee.
This consolidation of power and democratic erosion within China has also translated to the more democratic Hong Kong. The People’s Republic of China and Hong Kong have long had a “one country, two system” relationship where Hong Kong was allowed to make its own decisions regarding election methods. Since Xi Jinping came to power, this philosophy seems to be dissolving. The majority of voters in Hong Kong want democracy; however, Xi is doing everything short of dissolving Hong Kong’s government in order to gain power and influence in Hong Kong. In 2014, the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), which acts at the will of the Communist Party Leadership, followed through on a promise that guaranteed direct elections and universal suffrage in Hong Kong. This decision came with the stipulations that candidates must be nominated by a pro-Beijing nominating committee. This proposal was shot down by the pro-democracy Hong Kong Legislature as they believed it was a “sham” democracy rather than true democracy.
All these factors are clear signs of democratic erosion due to the consolidation of power by Xi Jinping. These actions have been causing many experts to compare his ever increasing power to that of the late Mao Zedong, who ruled as Chairman of the People’s Republic of China from 1943 to 1976. Both rulers heavily pushed what they labeled as “anti-corruption” campaigns in order to remove political opponents as well as consolidated power through various other means. President Xi has created what is considered a “Frankenstate” by combining legal actions, constitutional change and party reform, Xi has created a monster that allows him to rule indefinitely and take action whenever he wants due to his control of the Politburo selection process and the Communist Party controlled and manipulated legislature.
When talking about democratic erosion, one major sign is the state of the economy. Pre-Xi Jinping, the real GDP per capita in china was increasing with yearly rates of $700-1100 per capita per year. Since Xi took over as president in 2013, the rate at which real GDP per capita increases has dropped significantly. Between 2015 and 2016, China’s real GDP per capita only increased by just over $50 per capita per person. Comparatively, the United States had a real GDP per capita increase of over $1200 between 2015 and 2016, despite the popularity of populist candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election. Japan, a country more similar to China had a real GDP per capita increase of $4000 per capita while South Korea and Indonesia both had a real GDP per capita growth of a few hundred dollars. The logistic (increasing rate of growth followed decreasing rate of growth) growth of China’s economy and recent decrease in growth, seems to signal that democratic backsliding is present as the two tend to appear together.
Many people argue that the presence of China’s large economy and workforce is making the nation a necessary partner for all other nations. Due to the quick increase in economic power China has built over the past few decades, many argue that surrounding countries will soon follow China’s lead in politics; however, I believe this line of thought is wrong due to these recent events. This Chinese public is growing ever more discontent with the Chinese government despite the increase in state controlled and regulated media. Chinese students abroad have posted flyers saying “Not my President” as well as writing about their feelings of helplessness on American social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Hong Kong is pushing for independence now more than ever and it is not clear whether or not China will be able to contain the calls for democracy. There is only one thing for sure, China as we know it will soon cease to exist as it may become the next great Chinese Dynasty or a democracy propagated by a full overhaul of the government, whether through a coup d’état since Xi is the chairman of the central military Commission, a student-led social movement similar to those in Tiananmen Square, or some other change in leadership.