For decades, Western policymakers and observers assumed that as China’s economy prospers, it will eventually and inescapably democratise. Today, however, the West is alarmed that not only does China appear more authoritarian than before, the new leadership is perceived to harbour ambitions to compete with Western powers for world dominance. This turn of events has triggered fear around the world—today, the so-called “China model” is seen as a fundamental threat to liberal-democratic values.
How did the West get China wrong? Yuen Yuen Ang argues that most observers have misunderstood the political foundation underlying China’s rise. Professor Ang’s research reveals that since market opening, China has in fact pursued significant political reforms, just not in the manner that Western observers expected. Instead of instituting multiparty elections, the reformist leadership realised some of the key benefits of democratisation through bureaucratic reforms, thereby creating a unique political hybrid: autocracy with democratic characteristics. In other words, it is not autocracy but rather the injection of democratic, adaptive qualities into a single-party regime that drives China’s economic dynamism. But bureaucratic reforms cannot substitute for political reforms forever, Ang cautions. Going forward, China must release and channel the immense creative potential of civil society, which would necessitate greater freedom of expression, more public participation, and less state intervention.
- Yuen Yuen Ang. “Autocracy with Chinese Characteristics: Beijing’s Behind-the-Scenes Reforms,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2018 (Is Democracy Dying?) | Link
- Kurt Campbell & Ely Ratner. “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations.” Foreign Affairs. March/April 2018 | Link
About the Speaker
Yuen Yuen Ang is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, specialising in international development and China’s political economy. Her research examines strategies for enabling innovation and adaptive capacity in non-wealthy-democracies. In 2018, she was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow for “high-calibre scholarship that applies fresh perspectives to some of the most pressing issues of our times.” She is the author of a prize-winning book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, which won the Peter Katzenstein Prize in Political Economy, the Viviana Zelizer Prize in Economic Sociology, and was named “Best of Books 2017” by Foreign Affairs. Her research is supported by grants and awards from the Smith Richardson Foundation, Gates Foundation, IBM Centre for the Business of Government, and American Council of Learned Societies. She is an advisory board member of Cambridge University Press’ Elements Series on “The Politics of Growth.”
A frequently invited speaker, Professor Ang has delivered talks at over 100 academic, global development, foreign policy, and corporate venues around the world, including the United Nations, World Bank, China’s State Council, UK Department of International Development, Harvard Kennedy School, and Princeton’s Initiative on Complexity. Her op-eds appear in Foreign Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, The International Economy, World Bank Governance Blog, UNDP Transformation Series, among others. In greater China, her research is featured in major outlets like Xinhua, Pengpai, Jiemian, South China Morning Post. As a senior consultant to the United Nations, she advises on innovation, sustainable development, and Chinese investments in Cambodia. She also teaches courses on global communication to Chinese banks and companies venturing abroad. A core theme of Ang’s public engagement is dispelling misconceptions about the China model, both beyond and within China. Professor Ang is Singaporean and graduated from Colorado College and Stanford University.
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