Capitalism Is Making China Richer, But Not Democratic : Parallels The U.S. thought trade and investment would eventually make China more democratic. In fact, it's had the opposite effect: creating a rich, authoritarian leadership class that remains repressive.
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Capitalism Is Making China Richer, But Not Democratic

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Capitalism Is Making China Richer, But Not Democratic

Capitalism Is Making China Richer, But Not Democratic

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President Obama arrives in Beijing Monday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. This comes at a tense time between the world's two major powers. As far back as the early 90s Washington thought trade and investment would eventually make China more democratic. But in the past couple of years the Communist Party has doubled down on repression at home and become more aggressive overseas. NPR's Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt explains why things haven't turned out as Washington had hoped.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Both Republicans and Democrats used to argue that economic engagement would eventually change China's political system. Here's how President Bill Clinton put back in 1997.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: By working with China and expanding areas of cooperation, dealing forthrightly with our differences, we can advance fundamental American interests and values.

JAMES MANN: Part of the theory was - it was just inevitable.

LANGFITT: James Mann is a longtime China watcher at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

MANN: That any country that became prosperous and had growing trade and investment ties with the world would automatically liberalize.

LANGFITT: But Mann says capitalism had the opposite effect.

MANN: It resulted in a rich authoritarian regime, which is not what we were looking for in the first place and which is more of a problem to deal with.

LANGFITT: China's poured some of its riches into Naval power and is now tangling with Japan and the Philippines, close American allies, over offshore islands. Mann is the author of, "The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism will not Bring Democracy to China." He says American policymakers thought China would follow the path of other East Asian dictatorships, such as Taiwan and South Korea, which democratized the 1980s. But he says those countries relied on the U.S. for their defense, which Washington used as political leverage.

MANN: The United States pushedTaiwan over a decade. None of that is going to happen in China. It has an entirely different relationship with the United States.

MINXIN PEI: The U.S. has gravely underestimated the capabilities, the determination and resourcefulness of the Chinese Communist Party.

LANGFITT: Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, He says instead of democratizing China, economic helped the party strengthen its grip on power.

PEI: Better economic performance gives them greater political legitimacy and they do not have to do political reform. Another reason is it allows them more resources to use repression, to defend one party rule.

LANGFITT: Since coming to power in 2012 Chinese President's Xi Jinping has cracked down on Internet speech and jailed a variety of critics. Professor Shen Dingli teaches international relations at Fudan University here in Shanghai. He knows China's political failings, but says the party has made improvements it doesn't get credit for. Including term limits for top leaders, who though not popularly elected do pay close attention to public opinion.

SHEN DINGLI: America is somehow is inpatient. Is too idealistic and it too chauvinistic.

LANGFITT: How long can the Communist Party stay in power? Minxin Pei, of Claremont McKenna expects it to run out of gas in 10 to 15 years.

PEI: The people who work for this system have no fundamental loyalty to the system. All they want to do is to benefit personally from their relationship with the system. So over the long run the system will go bankrupt.

LANGFITT: Cheng Li is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank. He says the party has another trend running against it. Young Chinese have dramatically different expectations than their parents, who grew up under communism.

CHENG LI: Let's look at the young people in Shanghai, Beijing. They are more similar to their peers in Taipei, in Tokyo, in Washington, in New York, that's a very powerful force. They have similar lifestyle, they have similar inspiration and sooner or later they will also want to have freedom.

LANGFITT: Li says that's natural. As to when that might happen, well, that's anyone's guess. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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