As a population grows in affluence, it tends naturally toward democracy. This has been true the world over, and China is no exception. That’s why China’s ruling Communist Party suspended economic reforms in the wake of 1989’s Tiananmen Square Massacre, which communist hardliners considered to be the consequence of increasing wealth, which was in turn attributed to Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. China’s oligarchs saw a wealthier population as a threat to their hold on power – and it took several years for Deng to get his pro-market movement back on track, facilitating China’s extraordinary economic development over the past twenty years.
Not two months ago, the Field Guide observed that
…liberalism begets wealth, and a wealthy populace comes naturally to demand a political voice commensurate with its material well-being. This is the dynamic that brought democracy to much of Europe, and to countries all along the Pacific Rim – and, of course, to the US as well. One hopes the same will happen in China, where an increasingly wealthy class of industrialists should – if history teaches us – also come to demand a role in their own governance.
It took no great prescience to grasp that the time is ripe for democracy in Hong Kong. If indeed the forces that move a polity toward democracy become more and more acute as a population grows wealthier, then in no place in the world is democracy more overdue than Hong Kong, by far the richest undemocratic place in the world.* By comparison, Beijing in 1989 was a poor backwater. Though Beijing’s per capita GDP has since increased by a factor of 10, it remains a relatively poor city, with incomes comparable to those of Rio. Meanwhile Hong Kong today is similar in size, population and per capita income to New York City – seven times wealthier than Beijing.
In recent years, American neo-cons learned (painfully) that democracy cant be installed on a whim like a dishwasher. As the Field Guide noted back in August, “it seems constructive for liberalism to precede democracy – for a population to first learn respect for procedural fairness, before taking on self-governance.” It takes decades for many other institutions, public and private, to mature; and, above all, for liberal principles to become embedded in courts and property rights regimes. Once this foundation is laid, the transition to democracy occurs far more readily, and the government that results is far more stable. And by this measure, also, is Hong Kong’s democratic movement long overdue.
While one would be foolish to underestimate the brutality of China’s ruling party, especially on what they would be willing to do to hold onto power, now is a time for optimism. Protestors in Hong Kong have a real chance to succeed in wringing pro-democratic concessions from Beijing; and the scenes we see there today may unfold one day soon in Macao or Shanghai – and in coming years, in Beijing as well.
* While Qatar and Brunei have higher per capita income than Hong Kong, and are even less democratic, their wealth is derived from oil – neither have anything like the diverse, modern economy of Hong Kong. As has been previously observed, dictatorships with mineral wealth can persist far longer before democratic pressures build.