Tuesday 24 Jul 2018 | 00:06 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Jul 2018 | 00:06 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Political reform in China


Sam Roggeveen


10 April 2008 16:49

In response to this post, Crispin writes to ask:

Don't you feel, that to some extent, the idea that political liberalisation will come with economic prosperity is a myth propagated by the Chinese government to maintain legitimacy? If not then how do you explain Hong Kong? HK is highly developed with a broad middle class yet few rights to elect provincial officials.

Not just few rights, but fewer rights since China took over. And that does, as Crispin implies, rather undercut my argument about economic liberty leading to greater political liberty in Asia, because in Hong Kong, the political trajectory has been in precisely the opposite direction. But Hong Kong is an unusual case, and the counter-examples I cited — South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia — suggest it is more than a myth. I'm not saying there is a cut-and-dried case that economic liberalisation always leads to political liberty, but there is at least enough evidence to suggest causality.

My impression is that Chinese leaders don't themselves propagate the 'myth' Crispin refers to. Indeed, they seem to have struck just the opposite bargain with their people: if you accept perpetual rule by us, we will make you rich. That bargain is now the path to continued legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), rather than any promise of political liberalisation.

The CCP may in fact feel they have found the formula to break this Asian pattern of economic development leading to political liberalisation, and present evidence is on their side. But my hope is that the structures required for a modern Chinese economy — predictable rule of law, high standards of education, property rights, transparency, low levels of corruption — can eventually have a political impact. Preferably, that would bring about a slow transition to a more democratic style of governance from the bottom up, rather than a Gorbachev-style shock coming from the top down.