Urbanization Won’t Drive Chinese Democracy


Alex Lo in the South China Morning Post has a short column with the following explosive title:

Urbanisation will drive democracy

The piece begins:

The greatest driver for democracy in China will not come from its dissidents, overseas subversives or bleeding-heart expatriate busybodies. It will come from the Communist Party’s own urbanisation drive.

There is little reason to believe this is the case. As I’ve described at length (and Lo notes as well), China’s new urbanization plan is hardly anything radical. Indeed, the policies are carefully crafted to reduce the political pressures on the largest and most significant urban centers while expanding growth in smaller cities in the interior of the country.

What mechanism connects individuals living in cities with democracy then in the column? Pure modernization theory:

China reached that crossover point two years ago. Property rights, rule of law and rise of the bourgeois middle class – the basis of Western democracy – became reality for the majority as part of a vast historical process of which urbanisation across Europe was a key part. Beijing has long argued urbanisation will be the engine for economic growth. It must realise it may have even greater political implications.

It is certainly possible that China will democratize. If democratization were to happen, individuals living in China’s cities would be involved. Indeed, large cities are dangerous for dictators. Cities can undermine individual nondemocratic regimes but democracy is not guaranteed just because one nondemocratic regime is ousted. Most dictators are replaced by other dictators.

The Chinese regime continues to manage urbanization to reduce political threats that might emanate from its cities. To simply rely on the idea that modernization–the lumping together of urbanization, education, industrial specialization, etc–will inevitably cause democracy ignores the fact that history continues and did not end in 1989. This urbanization plan has been crafted to try to separate the different pieces of modernization–to urbanize and develop–without leading to pressures to democratize. Urbanization, even China’s managed urbanization, changes the economic and political situation in the country, and such changes might drive China somewhere different from where it is today. However, to assume democracy is the drive’s destination is a mistake.

One response to “Urbanization Won’t Drive Chinese Democracy”

  1. […] to Bill Bishop and others, my post on China’s urbanization and democracy, Urbanization Won’t Drive Chinese Democracy, has had something of a second life. I wanted to take the opportunity then to connect that piece […]

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