To examine the relationship between democracy and national economic performance in China, it is necessary to define the two notions. O’Neil et al. define democratic regimes as those “with rules that emphasize a large role for the public in governance and that protect basic rights and freedoms” (30).
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In democracies, citizens participate in decision-making and influence their countries’ internal and external policies and their governments’ actions. In contrast, authoritarian regimes strive for controlling all the processes in a state from above, i.e. by authority and oppression.
National economic performance can be defined in several different ways, depending on the understanding of what economic success is. One of the ways to measure it is by assessing the total value of all products and services made by a country annually (GDP). Another possible measurement is by comparing the incomes of citizens to previous years’ indicators and assessing whether the people of a country can afford better lives than before.
Depending on how successful national economic performance is defined, the understanding of its connection to democracy may vary dramatically. If success is seen in developing a particular industry and achieving economic growth in terms of production, undemocratic states can demonstrate outstanding results.
By controlling the economy, they can dedicate a lot of resources to a particular sector, e.g., military, producing weaponry that some democracies may not be able to afford. The reason is that democracies are accountable to their people and bound by the idea of ensuring well-being, while authoritarian regimes can exploit their people and leave them in poverty to attain outstanding economic results.
However, if it is posited that successful national economic performance is manifested in the wealth of the people, low levels of poverty, and the ability of citizens to provide for themselves and their families through honest labor, authoritarian regimes experience serious difficulties in achieving this success.
In China, the role of people in governance has been increased within recent decades, but the country is still undemocratic. As O’Neil et al. put it “[d]espite China’s three decades of economic reform and global trends of democratization, the country remains stubbornly authoritarian” (396).
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The situation is due to the rule of the Communist Party according to the principles of the party-state influenced by Lenin to a great extent (O’Neil 397). To an even greater extent, the authoritarianism is caused by 2,000 years of Confucianism, a system of values that dominates in China and recognized the importance of authority and subordination.
An important aspect of the undemocratic nature of today’s China is the utter weakness of civil society, while civil society is a crucial element of democracies. During Mao’s rule, “any organized interests outside the party-state were considered illegitimate and potentially harmful” (413), which is why civil society could not exist.
Presently, the situation has improved a little, but the state still does not tolerate strong social connections among people and their efforts to cooperate without governmental control.
The example of China, where many people still live in poverty (O’Neil 429), shows that authoritarian systems do not facilitate economic success if, by economic success, positive economic outcomes for the citizenry are meant.
Democracy is more likely to lead to national economic success because it creates better conditions for people to work for their own well-being. The opposite connection exists, too, as the economic growth in China may lead to further democratization, as the accumulation of wealth causes the need for protecting it by means of democratic institutions.
O’Neil, Patrick, et al. Cases in Comparative Politics. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.