Can China rise without democratizing its political system?

Submitted on October 22, 2014 as an essay for a politics course at HKU.

Ever since Deng Xiaoping proposed the idea of reform and opening up in 1978, China’s economy and living standard have improved remarkably. It has since evolved as the world’s second largest economy in 2010. However, in the course of economic reform, the Communist Party of China (CPC) still keeps a tight grip on power by maintaining her exclusive one-party control on the state. Moreover, the ruling CPC continues the crackdown on dissidents, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and activist Ai Weiwei. Over the course of reform and opening up, there were situations when China went through governance crisis, most notably the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the recent corruption scandals. The Chinese leaders have openly rejected the adaptation of Western-style political reform (Mang, 2014), and have applied the principle of “democratic centralism” (“Constitution of the People’s Republic of China,” 2004) as written in the constitution. This essay shall explore whether China can continue to rise without democratizing its political system. It shall analyze this by looking at: –

1) Whether China’s ruling party can maintain a high legitimacy without democratization, and

2) Whether Chinese people, especially the middle class, support democratization of the state.

These are the two key elements vital to the analysis. The essay shall present the arguments from both the proponent and opponent sides, and provide an overall justification at the end.

In this essay, ‘rise of China’ refers to China’s advancements in both soft power and hard power. It does not confine to China’s growth in economic terms. Rather, it implies the growing significance of China in the world stage in all economic, political, diplomatic, and cultural aspects. Also, ‘democratization’ implies the change to a more liberal form of political system, such as the implementation of genuine election.

First of all, there are conflicting arguments from scholars on whether China’s ruling party can maintain a high legitimacy without democratization.  Proponents of this statement mainly argue on the exceptional nature of the Chinese state, by referring to the ancient Confucian principles. It is argued that the Confucian principles did not require the state to be accountable to the people. Rather, states have to follow the Confucius moral and ethical principles. As a result, it is argued that the present legitimacy of the Chinese state does not have to depend on elections, but from people’s perception of it as the representative and embodiment of the Chinese civilization (Jacques, 2012). In a 1999 survey regarding regime legitimacy of the CPC, 44% of the respondents did not want any change in the Communist-led multiparty system, whereas 31% did not care as long as their lives could be improved (Tang, 2005). Thus, this shows that the CPC can still maintain a high degree of popular support without democratization of political system, as the legitimacy of the state does not necessarily lie on electoral mandate.

However, opponents of this statement argue that the legitimacy of the one-party rule in China lies on the fact that the CPC is able to deliver economic growth, but not in terms of political principles (Ikenberry, 2011). If the state fails to deliver a strong economic growth, the legitimacy of the state will be in crisis. Opponents of the statement generally perceive democracy as a universal value, and hence China will eventually follow the democratic path. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher, argued that “While democracy is not yet universally practiced, nor indeed uniformly accepted, in the general climate of world opinion, democratic governance has now achieved the status of being taken to be generally right” (Sen, 1999). To illustrate this, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It guaranteed the rights of freedom of expression, freedom of press and genuine and equal elections to people around the world (“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948) .Though the word “democracy” is not mentioned in the declaration, it nonetheless includes some principles that are achieved with democratization, such as the implementation of “universal and equal suffrage”. Hence, some scholars argue that China will have to adopt what they see as a universal value of democracy in order to ensure legitimacy of the state for future development.

Secondly, there are also contradictory views on whether China’s population, especially the middle class, would actually support democratization. The importance of the middle class in analyzing democratization is because they are usually the major force for democracy in history (Stoker, 2004). Scholars who believe the middle class might not support democratization [and hence China can rise without democratization] focuses on the heavy dependence of the middle class upon the state. It is argued that the middle class would worry about the consequences of political instability, especially when this would adversely affect their socioeconomic conditions (Chen, 2011). In a 1995 Beijing study which aimed at analyzing citizens’ values after the 4th June incident, an overwhelming 56% of Beijing residents reported that “national peace and prosperity” was their most important value.  “Fair administration of justice” and “social equality” were only selected by 13% and 10% of the respondents respectively (Dowd, 1999). Thus, some believe that the Chinese population still value prosperity more than the prospect of democracy. Hence, it is argued that the middle class would not pressurize the government for democracy if this will bring about social instability.

However, some other scholars believe that the growing Chinese middle class will exert pressure on Chinese authorities for democratic reforms. There are two major reasons for such. First, they believe the middle class supports democracy out of self-interests. That is because the middle class believes that a democratic system can protect their individual rights and private properties (Chen, 2011). This opinion can be understood in the sense that a democratic system can prevent abuse of power by the authorities, and hence their socioeconomic conditions can be maintained. Secondly, some scholars also argue that the middle class is generally better educated, and usually have more leisure time to participate in political affairs (Chen, 2011). A research conducted by Walsh, Jennings and Stoker agreed with the above and showed that the middle class generally holds a more vital role in supporting a democratic government.(Stoker, 2004) This phenomenon can also be explained by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow divided human motivation into 5 levels, and he placed esteem needs above physiological needs. It is argued that once the basic needs of a person are met (e.g. food, water, and air), that person will then move to a higher level of motivation. For instance, he will then seek for self-esteem and freedom (Maslow, 1943). Thus, this leads to the conclusion that China’s middle class will eventually pressurize the government for genuine democracy.

It can be seen from the above analysis that there are conflicting views among scholars on whether China can maintain a high legitimacy for future development, and whether China’s middle class will exert pressure on the government for political reform. Hence, there is not a clear consensus among scholars to address if China can rise without democratizing its political system. In the following, the writer shall provide his justification on the practical outcome of the situation, by taking into account the practical aspects of the Chinese state.

On the first note, the writer believes that China has to eventually reexamine its own political system, even though China might not adopt fully the Western style of democracy. The biggest advantage of democracy is to create a system where the government is held accountable directly to it citizens, and it allows a higher socio-political participation of citizens to affect the policy-making, such that the policies can reflect the genuine interests of the people. As John Ikenberry was quoted above as saying “the legitimacy of the Chinese state rests more on the state’s ability to deliver economic growth, rather than its political principles”, the current stability in the Chinese state comes from the fact that people are enjoying economic prosperity (Ikenberry, 2011). Another scholar, Martin Jacques, mentioned that the legitimacy of the state comes from the fact that people see it as the representative of the Chinese civilization (Jacques, 2012). Currently, this was seen as CPC focusing on national unity with nationalism. The leaders have suggested the idea of “Chinese Dream” and the “Great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” to unite the citizens (Wang, 2013). Nonetheless, the elements of nationalism or national unity in approving the CPC’s governance could diminish if citizens are faced with a more serious problem that affects them directly.

Currently, there are still many internal problems in China. For instance, the widespread food scandals and the tofu-dreg buildings that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake undermined the legitimacy of the government. It is possible that people might turn against the government if their grievances are high. In fact, human rights activists such as Gao Zhisheng and Ai Weiwei have voiced out repeatedly for greater human rights. These are potentially dangerous elements to the Chinese state. Furthermore, with the flow of information nowadays, China’s youth have become increasingly open, or even admiral, to America’s human rights and its “absolute freedom” (Zhao, 2008). This implies that China’s youth is likely to voice out for greater democracy again if they have strong grievances towards the government, just like the case of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Hence, it is important for China to establish a political system such that the government is held directly accountable to the people, such that the chance of any governance crisis during the course of any future development is minimized.

In conclusion, China is a civilization-state with its own unique characteristics. Nonetheless, if China continues to rise, it has to develop its own system of enhancing the degree of accountability to its people. Only by then can the internal problems be tackled efficiently and the long-term growth of the country be sustained.



Chen, J. L., Chunlong. (2011). Democratization and the Middle Class in China: The Middle Class’s Attitudes toward Democracy. Political Research Quarterly, 64(3), 705-719.

Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Article 3 C.F.R. (2004).

Dowd, D. V. C., Allen; Shen Mingming. (1999). The Prospects for Democratization in China: evidence from the 1995 Beijing Area Study. Journal of Contemporary China, 8(22), 365-380.

Ikenberry, G. J. (2011). The Future of the Liberal World Order: Internationalism After America. Foreign Affairs.

Jacques, M. (2012). When China Rules the World. London: Penguin Books.

Mang, A. (2014). Xi Jinping rules out Western-style political reform for China. SCMP. 20 Oct. 2014 <;

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-383.

Sen, A. (1999). Democracy as a Universal Value. 20 Oct. 2014 <;

Stoker, K. C. W. M. K. J. L. (2004). The Effects of Social Class Identification on Participatory Orientations towards Government. British Journal of Political Science, 34(3).

Tang, W. (2005). Public Opinion and Political Change in China. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21 C.F.R. (1948).

Wang, Z. (2013). Not Rising, But Rejuvenating: The “Chinese Dream”. The Diplomat. 20 Oct. 2014 <;

Zhao, Y. Z., Xiaoguang; Huang, Lihong. (2008). Chinese Students’ Knowledge and Thinking about America and China. The Social Studies, 99(1), 13-22.

Submitted for HKU course: China and World Order (CCCH9012).

Copyright © 2015 Eric Cheung. All rights reserved.
Please note that copying without proper acknowledgement (plagiarism) is a very serious offence in the academic world.


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