The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of President Xi Jinping is steadily solidifying and consolidating state power into the hands of the sitting President. Xi’s power grab is best illustrated by attempts to amend the Chinese Constitution in order to eliminate term-limits on the Presidency and remold Communist Party ideology with the addition of Xi’s own manifesto, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” to the Constitution. Xi’s escalating efforts to seize power for himself has sparked a great deal of alarm while squashing hopes for a future China that is both liberal and democratic. Xi’s moves are not, however, surprising. They are completely predicable. In the context of today’s apparent geopolitical trend away from democracy, they are just upsetting.
Given the political uprisings and other events have happened in places like the Middle East over the last decades, it was easy to assume the world’s march toward democracy had become a certainty. Watching authoritarian governments refuse to relinquish power as one fledgling democracy after another succumbed to political dysfunction, the chaos of civil unrest, and the threat of terrorism, it is easy to assume the democratization process has shifted into reserve. Hosting the world’s largest nation, China’s political fate offers the greatest hope for establishing a truly global democratic world order, thus China’s political fate plays a significant role in the fate of all nations. It is, of course, important to recognize the difference between the governmental democratization of a nation and the cultural democratization of a People.
Ultimately, the democratization of a society’s population matters far more than the democratization of a society’s government. Even among the Peoples of democratic countries, there is a significant portion of these populations that do not truly believe in democracy or actually want true democratic governance, particularly when confronted with the need to compromise with opposing and dissenting views. There is, therefore, always a question of how much a society has democratized and is democratizing, especially when it comes to a society ruled by an authoritarian government. Living under a ill-democratic or undemocratic government tends to silence and test the endurance of even the most adamant proponents of democracy while mitigating circumstances, such as prolonged wars and economic woes, tend to sour the taste of freedom. As such, the democratization of People is very hard to properly assess.
That said, there are many reasons governments buck the democratization trend, which go far beyond the democratic zeal of their populations. In the Middle East, governments are embracing brutal crackdowns due to the threat democratization posses to their rule, but they are using the guise of security threats to justify their authoritarian ways. The prospects of similar widespread political revolt poses the same threat to China’s Communist Party. Continued prosperity, which the ensuing civil unrest would likely threaten if the Community Party attempted to hold onto power, is simply Xi’s justification. The government of Xi cannot dictate the end of China’s democratization, but it can discourage it by rooting out any and all perceived benefits of democracy.
To sell democracy to China, the West tried to use economics. If China embraced capitalism and prospered, China would somehow embrace democracy. Today, China has continued to amass the economic benefits of international capitalism, yet Beijing is moving away from democracy. It is why the foreign policy experts of the Cold War and post Cold War eras are so alarmed, as well as surprised, by President Xi’s power grab. Recognizing the illiberal and ill-democratic nature of the US, however, Beijing’s refusal to embrace democracy makes sense. The parallels between America’s ill-democratic tendencies and those of China are fairly straightforward when examining the concentration of power, but the illiberalization of China and democratic countries like the US requires an economic analysis to understand.
The US is a liberal democracy, because the US Constitution prioritizes individual rights above cultural rights and government authority while all individuals, without regard to their socioeconomic status, are supposed to have the same legal rights, i.e. civil liberties. Clashes between individual rights and cultural rights occur when a community is forced to accept the expression of someone’s individual identity, yet that expression is prohibited by the defining characteristics of a cultural identity, which is why any democracies in the strict religious Muslim world will likely be illiberal. Although the US was founded as a liberal democracy, it has continued to liberalize, e.g. the Civil Rights Movements.
Economic liberalization describes decreasing government interference in the economy and the opening of an economy to foreign investments and goods, yet illiberal policies can hinder so-called free market economies by undermining the interests of the majority. All societies eventually fail when they neglect the critical interests of significant populations and powerful individuals. The strength of democracy is its potential to provide all the Peoples of a nation representation, so the interests of the weak can be balanced with the strong. In many respects, democracy is about establishing limits. The limitations imposed by democratic governments help ensure all citizens enjoy the same protections. In doing so, individuals are given a large degree of freedom to act without undermining the freedoms of others.
In contrast, dictatorships ensure absolute freedom for those strong enough to impose their rule; whereas, democracy harnesses the strength of the community. Where anarchy is the natural state of the human animal that provides absolute freedom to the point there is no government to protect the interests of anyone and “might-makes-right” becomes the law of the land, democracy balances the interests of citizens, so all can enjoy freedom and dictatorship cannot seize control. In a democracy, limits on the authority of government afford individual protections from the harms of oppressive, self-serving government. Limits on individual behavior protect people from the actions of other people. By placing limits on businesses, workers, consumers, and communities are protected from business decisions that cause harm.
With that in mind, liberal nations, such as democracies, are also commonwealths. Where the king claims ownership overall all the wealth of his kingdom in a monarchy, the People, as a collective, own the wealth of their nation in a democracy. For the capitalist, the ability to earn a higher socioeconomic standing and profit from the investment of one’s work (labor capital), innovative thinking (intellectual capital), and/or financial capital is the most efficient manner to distribute national wealth and provide for the needs of the People. In theory, individuals are able to derive greater benefits from the commonwealth when their contributions have a greater impact. On the other hand, commonwealths are not just about earning a big piece of the pie. The right and opportunity to earn from an economy comes with the price of social responsibility.
Unless people “give back” to their communities, their communities cannot derive a sustainable benefit from the economic activities of individuals. Paying taxes to support government services, which help secure and stabilize an economy, is a part of this social responsibility. Thanks to the economic liberalization of the world’s economies, however, wealthy individuals and businesses are economically incentivized to avoid social responsibility for reduced costs and additional opportunities in foreign lands. In a world defined by immense economic disparity, great pockets of inescapable poverty, decreased opportunities for average people, and increased costs, economic liberalization is seen as a means of enriching the already rich.
The over "liberalization" of international trade has undercut the ability of governments to tax, regulate, and protect their national economies, thus neutralizing the leverage governments had once extended to their Peoples. Accelerated globalization has also exposed workers to oppressive competition that undercuts their opportunities. In contrast, the wealthy are shedding their tax burdens and finding greater opportunities across the globe that allow them to avoid the downturns of local economies. A healthy economy, as a balanced part of a healthy society, depends upon the financial health of the masses. Unfortunately, the illiberalization of the world’s economies is undermining this need. Economic illiberalizaiton is also the reason why a capitalist China did not yield a democratic China.
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