An open market will herald wider freedoms

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 January, 2011, 12:00am

Despite continuing negative press in recent human rights reports, including the Freedom House survey, China is on a path likely to lead to democracy - eventually.

Although it does not inevitably follow that reaching a certain level of economic development will precipitate democratisation - as Singapore's experience signifies - the legacy of China's economic liberalisation will be a cultural shift entailing a growing demand for political reform.

The 'democratic sequencing' argument asserts that not only does economic modernisation aid the development of democracy, but it is a vital prerequisite for such political liberalisation.

In modernising its economy while under authoritarian leadership, Beijing has followed the early stages of the so-called East Asian model - the route taken by Taiwan, South Korea and even Japan - and hence can be seen as on the road towards the democratic status these nations later attained.

Although authoritarian governments can take difficult economic decisions with alacrity, higher income levels have historically proved unreachable for communist states.

Yet while the determination of a single party to maintain power - and therefore oppression - has also been a hallmark of such states, China's size and economic performance place it in a unique position.

Stanford University professor Henry Rowen contends that, by 2020, according to the definitions of the US-based Freedom House, China will be 'partly free', and 'free' a decade or so later. His argument is that, with the exception of oil states, nations with an average gross domestic product per person of over US$7,500 (at 1998 purchasing power parity) are all at least 'partly free' and most are 'free'. As Chinese salaries rise to surpass that level, so political and civil liberties will burgeon.

However, China's status in the annual Freedom House survey has remained emphatically 'not free' for the past decade, with no inkling of positive movement. The World Bank Group's Worldwide Governance Indicators for China, meanwhile, including those regarding accountability and rule of law, have not sustained a positive trend since the 1990s.

Both Rowen's timescale and the 'A leads inevitably to B' argument need broadening. The long-term effects, however, of free market reforms on traditional Chinese culture are yet to be fully realised. As the concept of communitarianism further diminishes in favour of individual self-interest, some of the traditional Confucian values which dovetailed so smoothly with communist rule, particularly unquestioned respect for authority, will continue to weaken.

Already, growing numbers of citizens are taking a stand against the government. When large numbers of increasingly well-educated and independently minded people in such a vast and disparate society assert their new-found individualism, greater freedoms in the realm of civil and political rights will be demanded with a force that may not be ignored.

Paul Letters is a writer studying for his master's degree in international affairs at the University of Hong Kong