Democracy Won’t Be Automatic

The article below was written by Yoshiko Herrera, assistant professor of government at Harvard University.

The rise of democracies in Russia and the former Soviet bloc has led many to assume that China can’t be far behind. But this is mostly wishful thinking, explains Yoshiko Herrera, assistant professor of government at Harvard:

There isn’t a magic process in which dictatorship is turned into democracy, and there’s no direct link between economic growth per se and democratization. Growth may cause other things, like a rise in education or changing values and interests that can lead to demands for democracy. But to actually have a democracy, you need democratic institutions. You can’t just improve the economy; you need elections, freedom of association, freedom of the press and so on. This doesn’t come about automatically or on its own. You don’t get a constitution without working on it.

If a country like China has no specific plans for democratization, it is unlikely that democratization will occur. You might get the growth of an educated middle class that demands democracy. But a dictatorship by definition is not responsive to the population. Without parties and elections, how will people’s interests get put into policies?

You may get a frustrated population that marches in the streets demanding democracy, as happened in Eastern Europe. But we know that democratization takes more than values; it takes institutions.

Almost always necessary for capitalism is rule of law, and especially property rights. You can’t have investment if you don’t have property rights. In Russia, this is still very shaky, which is one reason why they have low investment. In China they aren’t having elections or party reform, but they do have certain protections for investors, especially foreigners. There isn’t the type of rule of law that allows you to sue the government if you don’t like what they are doing to you. But if a foreigner invests money, local elites are at least prohibited from stealing it.
China is an example of a country that is able to separate certain kinds of rule of law from democratization. Another is Singapore, which has relatively low corruption, rule of law in economic matters and no democracy.

Economically, most dictatorships squander resources, but there are some that have produced growth, such as South Korea, Chile, Singapore and China. If information and innovation are crucial to technological development, that is less likely to occur in an authoritarian system.

Quantitative studies show that very rich countries are stable no matter what their political system is. You don’t get regime change, from democracy to dictatorship or the reverse, in countries over a certain level of per capita income. People look at Europe and America and say if you’re rich you must be democratic. Look at Saudi Arabia. They have a high level of income, but no democracy.

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