Will China approach democratization? When?

Looking at China’s many deficiencies in equality and constitutional liberalism, one might see a China incapable of progressing to a liberal democratic political system. Inequality and corruption are rife throughout Mainland China. As the recent Melamime scandal has proven, corruption of government officials and party members is a constant source of turmoil. Perhaps the biggest blight on China’s image is its treatment of Liu Xiaobo, a recent Nobel Prize winner currently imprisoned for his dissent against the government. While democracy remains a faraway destination in China’s horizon, it will certainly be achieved within the next century because, in spite of the implications that censorship of the media and the Internet have on political development, the combination of netizens, Internet users, and an emerging middle class will result in a population not only dissatisfied with government policies, but also capable of effecting dramatic political and social change.

Economic prosperity will continue to fund government actions aimed at impeding democracy. Technology, however, will prove too pervasive to be silenced by a single regime. Over the last few years, netizens, or Internet users, have established themselves as the most powerful demographic in China. With hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens online, the amount of support that can be generated overnight is astronomical. In 2009, an unsuspected waitress Deng Yujiao faced the death penalty for stabbing two government officials who had attacked and sexually assaulted her. After her story was broadcasted to netizens in blog posts, millions of citizens called for her release and began raising money for her legal defense. Through this extraordinary, nation-wide outcry for her exoneration, she was released from prison. While the government may be able to censor the Internet to a certain degree, it is clear that the enormous power and influence wielded by China’s netizens and bloggers is capable of affecting government policy.

The emergence of a middle class discontent with deficient political and social rights will prove crucial to China’s democratization. Since China’s economy opened up more than two decades ago through Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist economic policies, many wonder why China still lacks a dominant middle class. What few people understand is that, despite its ascension as the world’s second most prosperous economy, China is still a developing country. More than four hundred million people live in poverty, a hundred and fifty million citizens are currently compelled to illegally travel outside of their province in search of menial labor work, effectively forfeiting their basic rights to health insurance, education and housing, and despite the fact that its territories stretch across several time zones, all of Mainland China maintains a universal time, since the government lacks the resources to effectively mandate different time zones.

Furthermore, China’s economy has only recently bolstered its middle class. Most of China’s windfall profits in manufacturing have benefited a select few, causing a widening stratification between China’s wealthy elite and poverty-stricken farmers. This problem is only further exacerbated as the government continues to artificially inflate its currency, which benefits the manufacturing industry while leaving most of its population with deficient capital and buying power to subsist as China’s living costs continue to rise. According to China Newsweek, a news publication in Beijing, “Many attribute middle class stagnation to the past several years of skyrocketing housing prices and living costs. Between 2004 and 2010, for example, housing prices in Beijing alone nearly quadrupled. Scholars point out that housing costs have siphoned off a very large portion of middle class income, and that these people can no longer afford stable and comfortable lives… [with] housing accounting for more than half of all consumption.”

Much of the suppression of China’s middle class can also be attributed to the government. According to Professor Tang Jun from the Institute of Policy Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “…the current middle class as it stands is economically and politically weak and… one important reason for this predicament is that the government has controlled much of the economy, and has left little room for people to fulfill their dreams and aspirations. Institutional and financial barriers, and unwritten rules governing social life combine to make fair competition virtually impossible. Nearly two thirds of China’s economy is controlled by State-owned giants, making it difficult for private small- and medium-sized enterprises to prosper.” Government efforts to strengthen the middle class remain on the back burner as, “60 to 70 percent of the entire population finds itself on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, the government’s priority remains to improve the livelihood of this segment of the population.”

A stronger middle class, however, will prove integral to China’s political development. “The middle class is more than just an economic concept, it is also political,” said Xue Yong, professor of history at Suffolk Universiy in Boston. Xue continued that, “…in the U.S., the middle class is influential because the people that make up this segment- teachers, journalists, and other leaders- establish the leading social trends in America and are united by political activities, such as voting and campaigning.” Until the middle class represents a larger proportion of China’s population, democratic liberalization is unlikely.

According to China Newsweek, “Professor Su Hainan from the Ministry of Human Resources and the Social Security Institute of Labor Wages predicts that China will have a middle class in a typical sense of the term by 2020 at the earliest. By then, the middle-level income earners will make up about 38 percent of the general population, but only when this group establishes a shared value system, will China claim to have a real middle class.” It is clear that China’s middle class will undergo enormous growth over the next decade, but it will be several decades until China’s middle class will gather the strength and unity to begin demanding political changes.

V, a fictional character from a recent political thriller, V for Vendetta, once said, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” While the contrary may appear to be true, the Chinese government is much more afraid of its citizenry rising up and demanding a democratic revolution than the people are of the communist party. Two summers ago, the Chinese government attempted to appease residents in Beijing by creating a hotline where people could voice complaints about government officials. Within five minutes the hotline crashed due to an influx of callers. The communist party may continue to restrict its citizens and squash political dissent, but they are hardly in disillusionment with the stark reality that someday China will develop into a democracy. It is this imminent forecast that has led the government to slowly liberalize over the past few years, and it is the reason why many government officials and prominent party members are sending their children to American universities, including Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s successor, who recently sent his daughter to study at Harvard University. The fact that China’s future leader is sending his only daughter to study at America’s top university instead of at China’s is emblematic of the fact that China’s government is keenly aware that democratization is nearing in China’s future. Contingent upon the cultivation of a growing middle class, this political development may not take shape for several decades, but it will certainly be achieved within the next century.

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