After the Fall: What If China Becomes a Democracy?

May 24, 2022 Updated: May 24, 2022


While the Chinese regime is not in danger of falling, but at a time when the rule of Xi Jinping is under strain, it is a useful thought experiment to consider a post-communist China and what opportunities this would present for the United States and its allies.

China as a Democracy

If China were democratic, it would likely be a parliamentary, multiparty democracy with strong and distinctive leftist, center, and rightist political parties. In contrast to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) today, the legitimacy of its political system would be considered and recognized by the West as the rightful representative government of the Chinese people. A democratic China would have a better human rights record for the Chinese population, including ethnic and religious minorities.

For this positive outcome to obtain, much depends upon the process of how a post-communist China came to democracy. It is unlikely that any transition from communism to democracy would result in an immediately stable democratic system. More likely, periods of transition are necessary and can yield authoritarianism, as it has occurred in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Bloc.

Slovakia under Vladimir Meciar and his political party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, was a case where the democratic transition was halted by authoritarian rule before pressure from the European Union and NATO, and the increased stability among democratic parties permitted its transition to democracy.

However, the most significant failure since the Weimar Republic was Russia’s transition from communism to the “shock therapy” of the 1990s, to the ultimate end of its fledgling democracy by Boris Yeltsin’s second term through the start of the Vladimir Putin era. Russia’s failed democratic transition is a warning of how tenuous transitions can be, particularly for major powers.

Due to the difficulties of transition, the legacy of Chinese communism, and China’s political tradition, were China to move rapidly to a democratic government, authoritarianism might be the likely outcome. A democratic transition will be more effective if it is staged, as in Taiwan. Taiwan’s transition from authoritarian rule under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, to Lee Teng-hui and his successors, was a stepped transition.

Lee Teng-Hui
Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui speaks during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on June 1, 2007. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

While the risks of a transition are significant, a democratic, post-communist China provides the opportunity for the United States to improve its relationship with Beijing significantly and, thus, ensures that the Sino-American security competition lessens.

How Would China Interpret Democracy

Were China to be democratic, it is probable that its interpretation of democracy would be at variance from the West and even with Taiwan in two respects.

First, Chinese democracy will encompass strong Han nationalism across the spectrum of political parties. This will include potent nationalist appeals, including territorial claims, and narratives of Han superiority over all other peoples, be they minorities in China or with the world’s other populations. This will also have a strong racial component and will likely be a source of tension in the Sino-American relationship.

Second, a democratic China will not be subordinate to the West regarding the definition of democracy, how it should function, or the standards by which the polity should be judged by other democracies as well as by international actors. Rather than being a student, a democratic China will seek to be the professor, seeking to lead the world—including Western countries—in the definition and adjudication of democratic ideology. This will be a clear source of friction in the Sino-American relationship. The vision of China leading the world is inherent to the Han worldview of the country and its place in the world.

A More Stable World

Despite inevitable difficulties, a democratic polity would enable China to share a greater number of shared interests with the United States as both states would share a political ideology. To the extent that ideological conflict drives Sino-American security competition, this tension would be lessened, as it would with other states in the Indo-Pacific.

A democratic China would be a possible candidate for alliance membership in a future security architecture encompassing the present Quadrilateral Security Dialogue members: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

Moreover, a democratic China would also open a possible peaceful route to unification with Taiwan as both would be democratic and might logically follow an East-West German path to political unification and integration. However, unification would be far from the inter-German model.

Within a democratic China, Han nationalism would be a potent force compelling unification on the mainland’s terms. In opposition, the legacy of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and political development since 1949 will be a repellant force. Unification, even under Beijing and Taipei’s democratic auspices, will pose tremendous difficulties, and the strength of Taiwan’s opposition should not be underestimated.

Finally, although a post-communist China’s territorial disputes will remain with India, Japan, and the ASEAN states in the South China Sea, a democratic China provides alternative means to resolve these complex issues. Yet, territorial disputes are often ripe for escalation as nationalism is directly impacted.

To maintain stability in the South China Sea, the United States will have to maintain a military presence in the Indo-Pacific, undoubtedly generating tension with a democratic China.

A democratic, post-communist China is a liberating outcome for the people of China and the world. The ideology of the present Chinese regime ensures that confrontation with the United States and its allies continues and will only escalate. A democratic, post-communist China allows the world an opportunity to avoid a conflagration even if sources of tension are not wholly eliminated. Key voices in the Trump administration recognized this. The Biden administration does not, and so ensures that democratic ideology will not be employed in the fight against the CCP to undermine its legitimacy.

Upon reflection, with the ubiquity of surveillance technology, COVID-19 lockdowns, the politicization of social media, “disinformation,” lack of outrage over the genocide in Xinjiang and other civil rights abuses in China, coupled with the erosion of the U.S. global position and civil rights and liberties in West, then, unless reversed, the world could be forgiven for believing that the United States is transitioning from a liberal democracy to post-liberal democracy.

Moreover, as a post-liberal democracy, it employs the motivation and many of the tools perfected by China to suppress freedom. This has to halt. Rather than the United States moving toward the Chinese regime, America needs to sustain the health of its liberal democracy, and undermine the CCP, so that China may move toward an alternative and democratic political system.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Bradley A. Thayer is a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger: China and is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”