Autocracy with Democratic Characteristics: How the West Got China Wrong
By Christopher Chen
Dr Ang Yuen Yuen, Visiting Senior Fellow at RSIS, delivered an RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture on 10 October 2018 titled “Autocracy with Democratic Characteristics: How the West Got China Wrong”.
For decades, Western policymakers and observers assumed that as China’s economy prospered, it will eventually and inescapably democratise. Today, however, the West is alarmed that not only does China appear more authoritarian than before, but the new leadership is perceived to harbour ambitions to compete with Western powers for world dominance. Dr Ang argued that most observers have misunderstood the political foundation underlying China’s rise, and that China, from 1978-2013, had in fact pursued significant political reforms, but not in the manner that Western observers expected.
Traditional political reforms often involve the introduction of multiparty elections. However, Dr Ang posited that, in China’s case, reforms to the party-state’s bureaucracy were undertaken instead. As such, bureaucratic reforms achieved some key benefits of democratisation – accountability, competition, limits on power – without China having to give up the single party model. From her research, she found that Deng Xiaoping changed the criteria of cadre evaluation and selection, introducing measurable economic results as part of their key performance indicators. During the reform period, a dual-track compensation scheme was also institutionalised. Bureaucrats earned a low fixed formal salary but were eligible for highly variable supplementary pay and in-kind benefits directly pegged to the revenue generated. This created a culture of hyper-competition which greatly incentivised cadres to increase productivity in their townships and villages.
She noted that this injection of democratic, adaptive qualities into the single-party regime created a unique political hybrid system, an autocracy with democratic characteristics, which has driven much of China’s economic growth for the past forty years.
However, she pointed out that while bureaucratic reforms might have been the impetus for China’s economic growth up till now, this strategy will not be sustainable in the near future. In the current Xi Jinping era, the limits of bureaucratic reforms have become increasingly clear, and China’s continuous shift towards a high-income economy necessitates greater freedom of expression, more public participation, and lesser state intervention.
Last updated on 23/01/2019