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World Francis Fukuyama: China’s long march to democracy from the middle class

Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, is getting attention in Beijing.

NOAH BERGER/NYT

A quarter of a century ago, the U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared the Western democratic system "the end of history." It was a deliberate tweaking of Marxist philosophy, which held that the trajectory of human development would end in communist utopia. Not true, Prof. Fukuyama wrote then. History was moving toward "an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism." Now, in a new book called Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, he says that while 60 per cent of the world's nations are democracies – compared with 30 per cent in 1974 – "a strong and effective state" is also important. Chinese media have seized on that idea as an endorsement of the Chinese political system.

"Fukuyama's research gives a positive response to China's political building, demonstrating that China's achievements are not made out of sheer luck. China is on the right track," the Communist mouthpiece newspaper Global Times wrote this week.

That his work would gain a reading in China is no surprise to Prof. Fukuyama. In a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail, the Stanford University professor said he still believes countries like China will eventually move toward a Western-style system thanks to a growing middle class with the political investment and financial power to demand responsive government. But he also warned that the potentially dangerous concentration of power acquired by China's current president, Xi Jinping, could expose some of the fundamental flaws in the country's political system.

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You've said China will eventually look more like Western countries than the reverse. Why?

Several things are not sustainable about the Chinese system. Compared to other authoritarian countries, they're pretty good at trying to monitor what people want, and they try to be responsive. But in the end I don't think you can manage that big and complex a society in that way. The other big problem is going to be the middle class. At this point, I think the Chinese middle class is pretty happy, because they've done pretty well from all of the economic growth. But that's just not going to continue, because the economic model is going to peter out, I would say sooner rather than later.

The final Achilles heel in their system is the problem of the bad emperor. If you have a good emperor, that system works pretty well. You can do things pretty quickly: put up infrastructure and shift consumption from exports to domestic. But the trouble in a system without checks and balances is that if you get a bad emperor, there's nothing you can do about it. That's really the problem they haven't solved. And it's really acute now with Xi Jinping because he's accumulating more power than any other Chinese leader since Deng and maybe even Mao Zedong. At this point, we have no idea whether he's a good emperor or a bad emperor. If it turns out he's a bad emperor, he can do an awful lot of damage to that society.

And to the political system?

In a certain way he may end up doing what everybody feared Bo Xilai would do, which is to upset all of the rules of collective leadership that have been in place ever since 1978, and amass a tremendous amount of personal power.

What would that result in?

It will be tyranny. The thing about the Chinese system is because everybody lived through the Cultural Revolution, they're all scared by that and don't want that kind of accumulation of power in any one leader. But Xi Jinping could upset all of that.

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Do you see him as a dangerous leader?

I've heard Chinese people argue that he actually could end up being a big liberalizer, he just has to secure his personal power base before he does all this good stuff. On the other hand he could turn out to the be opposite. He could drag the country back into some form of Maoism. It's very hard to know at this point.

If change does happen in China, how do you see it happening?

The ideal thing for China would be to develop a little bit like 19th-century Europe where you start with law rather than democracy. You already have a certain amount of rule-based decision-making, and you need to make that deeper, and make it apply to the party and not just to everybody else. And then down the road you can increase participation, and maybe that starts by democratizing the party itself or creating some form of intra-party democracy.

That preferred path is directed by the party itself.

Right.

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If one takes that as unlikely, what kind of triggers could you see dragging the party into this change? If 1989 wasn't enough, what might be?

The main thing hanging over them is just the economy. They're expecting to continue 7.5 per cent growth through 2020 so they can double income between 2010 and 2020. I don't know any western economist who believes they can actually do this. I think it's going to slow down. They are producing six or seven million college graduates every year, and the prospects that they're all going to find useful employment and be better off than their parents may not be that high. And if that's the case, you have the basis for a lot of social instability.

You've written that "the emergence of a market-based global economic order and the spread of democracy are clearly linked." But there is a growing belief among some China observers that maybe China can do it, maybe it can build its own durable model of authoritarian capitalism. Could China be the exception?

I have a lot of reasons for thinking it isn't going to be sustainable. But on the other hand they've managed to keep the thing going for much longer than a lot of people thought 10 or 15 years ago. We'll have to see. I really do think that legitimacy is a really big problem for them. Apart from performance, they still really don't have a plausible story to tell about why the party should continue to run the country. I don't see how you run a society successfully without having greater consensus on what the ultimate moral basis for it is I think they're going to have to jettison Marxism explicitly at some point, because nobody believes in it. They may try to do something like what Putin is doing – set the clock back 100 years and say they are trying to revive traditional Chinese values.

Is there a cultural component toward embracing democracy? China does have quite a lengthy imperial history …

I think cultural differences clash with modernization, and there's a tendency for a lot of these systems to converge over time because of largely economic and social reasons.I don't think China will ever look like the United States. It's never going to be that individualistic, and they're never going to have American-style democracy. The question is, are they going to have something that looks more like a real rule of law? And is there going to be more open discussion and personal and political freedom? I don't see why not. It seems to me a lot of Chinese want that.

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You've issued what we could call a warning about the decay creeping in to the U.S. and other Western systems. Does a worsening example elsewhere make it less likely China might embrace a democratic system?

Definitely. And I can see this in the Chinese students that I get here in the United States. Fifteen years ago, almost all of them would have said yes, we want to be like the United States. And today I just don't think they think like that. A lot of them actually think their system is pretty good.

You have Putin and Viktor Orban all arguing now that both the European and American models are bankrupt, and authoritarianism is doing a lot better. I think it's a bunch of bullshit, actually. But they can make that argument more plausibly today than they could 15 years ago That might make the development of democratic change more difficult in other countries?

Yeah, because democracy is projected, really, through soft power. It's really the example that people look up to. And right now, it looks like some of these authoritarian regimes are doing well and democracies aren't. The financial crises in both the EU and the U.S. took a really big toll. I think we will get out of both the political and economic problems we're having. But you have to fix it, I think, to be credible.

There's an old argument that China is too big and too complex for democracy to work. Hand people the vote, and you will lose stability, critics say. What do you make that of that?

The stability argument cuts both ways. Sometimes the best way that you achieve stability is by getting better buy-in from people, by allowing them to participate more. Right now everyone is doing well and they seem to be reasonably happy with the government. But that's not going to happen forever.

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China wants to build a better legal system, one no longer under local control but still under the influence of the central government. Could that be the kind of hybrid model that allows the country to succeed?

That's what I'm saying is my preferred path. They really need to start with law. They need to start on a system where more and more decision-making is taken out of the discretionary authority of the party and put under rules.

If China does eventually move toward a more democratic system, what does that suggest in terms of how Western countries should face China today?

It's a difficult issue. Keeping the pressure on them, in particular on human rights cases, is probably a good thing and necessary. But heckling them about their system isn't going to do them any good, because they are too powerful and self-confident. They will find it annoying and won't listen.

Are the Hong Kong protests right now a harbinger of any looming changes?

I really doubt it. It seems to me that all of these authoritarian leaders have made this vow to themselves they will never let an Orange Revolution happen in their country – and Xi Jinping of all of them is probably the most committed to that.

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Is there another country whose trajectory might prove instructive for China?

Both South Korea and Taiwan are cases of countries that started out as authoritarian and gradually liberalized and democratized over time. Part of the problem right now is that, especially with Taiwan, these countries have a lot of internal scandals and so forth. So their democracy doesn't look that great to other people in Asia, either.

What do you expect will get censored in your book when it's published in China?

I can't really control this, but I suspect they're going to take out all the negative stuff in the book. I was told by an academic who lives in China that he thought the party would translate the entire book and circulate it privately among them, because they actually wanted to know what I have to say.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

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