In the past twenty years, the world has been asking itself “will China democratize”? However, the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi has been doing so well that the debate had died down… until now. Coronavirus is bringing a new twist to speculations over China’s political evolution, raising a new question: could Coronavirus be the Party’s downfall, and the beginning of a possible democracy?
The emerging paradox is, while Coronavirus presently enables the Chinese government to reinforce its authoritarian rule, triggering a series of issues for Chinese political and civil society, its effects could actually lead to democratization in the long term.
Until now, China has defied the most prominent democratization theories based on economic growth and modernization. Indeed, in less than half a century, China has succeeded in catching up with the largest economies and most modern parts of the world, all the while remaining an authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, China, though an enduring case, is actually not the only exception to the rule of democratization’s economic growth theory. Looking back at History, many Latin American countries[i] have also tolerated oligarchies and dictatorships because of these regimes’ popular economic improvements. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has therefore arguably been able to maintain legitimacy thanks to its economic successes to drive China into becoming the world’s second largest economy.
However, ever since its first appearance in Wuhan, China last December, Covid-19 has had disastrous impacts on economies around the globe, and China has not been spared. China has already experienced an economic slowdown, as the pandemic has significantly cut down its exports, has accelerated unemployment, and most importantly, has widened socio-economic inequalities between rural and urban citizens. In parallel, Covid-19 has also worsened already-strained relations between the United States and China, a setback from the progress both countries had made in January of this year. The combination of both rising Sino-U.S. tensions and domestic economic downturn will certainly lead to an erosion of popular support for the CCP and provokes a crisis of legitimacy. According to theories and historical evidence, democracies can, indeed, arise from major social conflicts where the middle class plays a key role in leading protests, even revolutions[ii]. Presently, social discontent is not strong enough to spark a revolution because China’s economy and social inequalities haven’t eroded enough, but the CPP will face major discontent if it does not rectify Covid-19’s economic negative effects, especially coming from the young educated middle class that will likely struggle to find employment in the coming years.
The Chinese government arguably already anticipates such reaction. It is therefore using the pandemic as an excuse to not only tighten control over various aspects of social life through recent health measures, but also influence politics, eroding the few remaining aspects of China’s “one country, two systems” principle. For example, the CPP cancelled elections in Hong Kong earlier in September, sparking more protests among citizens. Other countries’ elections have also been pushed back due to Covid-19; however, the virus is currently not raging in Hong Kong, which suggests the elections could have been maintained, and the CCP was just using it as a pretext to further its political agenda.
Nevertheless, despite the CCP’s attempts at keeping face and controlling the country under the pretext of health safety, Coronavirus is paradoxically shedding light on the regime’s weaknesses. The Party’s efforts to silence doctors trying to alert their colleagues of the virus has led many to question and challenge President Xi’s style of management. Evidently, those who dared speak up were quickly arrested and imprisoned for publicly criticizing Xi, including CCP member and businessman Ren Zhiqiang. Although he was charged for fraud and embezzlement, his February essay in which he called Xi a “clown” was probably more reason to why he was arrested in the first place, proof of China’s stealth authoritarianism[iii]. Above all, Covid-19 raises serious questions about China’s censorships, as many, both domestically and internationally, wonder if the virus could have been contained earlier if China had had greater freedom of speech, and maybe the world would have never experienced the pandemic we now know. Such significant questioning, which not only regards China but the rest of the world, could add fuel to the slowly burning fire of Coronavirus-induced discontent among Chinese citizens.
Moreover, Covid-19 is not only creating problems, but magnifying already-existing ones. The CCP’s attempts to contain the virus also revived scandals over Uighurs’ persecution after the decision to put the province of Xinjiang under lock-down in August. Since then, China has not only received international accusations for human rights violations, but has also lost economic benefits, like international companies pulling out of deals with their Chinese suppliers after the confirmation of Uighurs’ forced labor. Stealth authoritarianism, re-education camps and the United States as its major opponent… Xi’s China under Coronavirus is increasingly taking the appearance of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Sino-U.S. relations are uncannily mirroring Cold War tensions. Knowing how this story ended, is the current situation foreshadowing Communist China’s collapse in the future?
As of today, that future remains far, and for now, China is going through a period of civil liberties’ erosion, magnified by Coronavirus. Experts around the world remain extremely divided on whether or not China will become a democracy. Some believe that China will eventually get democracy by 2030; others claim it will not, mainly because it has never been a democracy historically and thus has no incentives to become one. In addition, China’s economy is currently recovering better than any other countries’, which might boost the CPP’s popularity after all… Yet, Covid-19 has also deepened stringent social inequalities and economic tensions, has exacerbated China’s ongoing political issues, and has put the CPP’s weaknesses in the spotlight. So, is Coronavirus really signaling a possible democratization in China? In the short term, the answer is “no”. The virus is currently contributing to the erosion of civil liberties and legislative elections, strengthening the CCP’s control. On an optimistic note though, this virus might just be the long-awaited trigger for another Chinese revolution, and who knows, a chance at democratization.
[i] Lehoucq, Fabrice. 2008. “Bolivia’s Constitutional Breakdown.” Journal of Democracy 19(4): pp. 113-114
[ii] Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James. 2006. “Our Argument.” Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 2 pp.38
[iii] Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1707 Part III.D.
I agree with your article. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed weaknesses that Xi would have wanted to keep under cover; large-scale suppression in the spotlight could lead to some serious consequences from both domestic and foreign citizens, some of which you mentioned. This really can go both ways because we already know China’s reaction is more suppression. Whether that will burst into democratic movements and whether they will be successful- I am personally not very optimistic because of common intervention of the military in civilian matters- but still hope that there will be miraculous changes in the future.
As of its impacts in the present, I think it will raise the costs for other states to comply with China’s foreign policies to some extent both due to its structural unsoundness and outright human rights abuses which may not fly with the constituents.
It was also interesting how you linked China’s authoritarianism with its initial inability to contain the virus.
Your assessment of the situation is spot on. Crises tend to reveal the true strength of a regime and the lengths that they are willing to go to preserve political power. The lengths that the CCP went to in order to silence doctors that were attempting to sound the alarm on the virus still baffles me. What is the line between alarm and political opposition? Is all bad news dissent? Recent reports revealed by CNN titled the “Wuhan Files,” claim that China was aware of COVID-19 prior to notifying the international community, underreported cases, and had an initial chaotic response to the virus. A virus is a natural phenomenon and by no means can be blamed on the nation in which it is first discovered. However, can the Chinese regime be blamed for not notifying the world of a virus that it was aware of and underreporting cases to preserve an “image” in a time when transparency literally means life or death? Does COVID-19 and its handling in China on top of the economic slowdown mentioned have the possibility of destabilizing the regime? What would a post-CCP China look like?
Hi Anh-Lise, I really enjoyed your article and took some key points from your work. It will be interesting to monitor China’s standing around the world as a result of Covid-19, in addition to the country’s social stability. I say this to iterate some of the moves China has made over the last few weeks and months internationally that may work to its disadvantage in the future. For example, China’s economic targeting of Australian exports over the Australian Prime Minister’s push for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak, first being detected in Wuhan. In the grand scheme of geopolitics, it is also evident that China has no clear allies – only clients. Because the regime works so hard to ensure its levels of social (domestic) stability are in check, the near-future might hold some setbacks for the Communist Party in the event of continuing international pressure on the Chinese government into next year.