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CHEN YAO: Democratization and modernization do not always go hand-in-hand

| 2017-07-20
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The international community has long held that democracy is the correct moral choice in politics or even that democracy is the only political goal. In other words, the only correct political path for a country is to establish democracy and improve it constantly, the argument goes.

This view is deeply rooted. Some developing countries that chose Western democracy in the late 20th century however met with problems like political instability, wealth gaps, economic slowdown, social inequality, internal strife and corruption. Even advanced Western democratic countries have suffered debt crisis, social disintegration, class tensions, insufficient public goods, extremism and other conflicts.

Known for his thesis that the world had reached “the end of history” with the fall of the Soviet Union, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama also argued that as political systems develop over time, countries will inevitably meet general political decay, and democracy itself is one cause.
People might find it hard to understand why Western democracy can lead to political decay. In the past two or three centuries, the development of democracy seemed to synchronize with that of society and economy. For a long time, many theorists believed it to be an iron law that only democracy could bring about social progress and economic growth.

However, these theories were challenged in the 1960s and the 1970s, when some authoritarian regimes in East Asia and Latin America underwent rapid economic growth, while many countries with Western democracies, especially emerging nations, suffered from stagnant social and economic development.

Theory and practice have demonstrated that democracy does not necessarily translate into social and economic development. Research shows that instead of democracy, it is the vision and effective governance of a country that generates modernization. A country may properly establish democratic institutions and procedures but still not produce good results. Making policies is one thing but obtaining policy results is another. Also, it is impossible for the government to resolve all the disparities and conflicts of interest.

Indeed, the driving force behind modernization in many developed countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany was active government intervention rather than the political regime of democracy. And when countries in East Asia and Latin America made economic miracles and achieved rapid growth in the late 20th century, they hadn’t started the process of democratization yet.

Democratization involves choices and competition. Failures in the process definitely are not pleasant. Also, improving the quality of democracy does not always improve the public goods and services a government provides. Throughout history, there have been numerous examples of democratic countries that lost public support due to an inability to fulfill public needs.

No matter how perfect the structure and procedures of a democracy are, approval ratings will not be high if it fails to boost the economy, protect its people, maintain social equality and provide quality public goods. 

Looking at human activities as a whole, we can further find the limitations of democracy. As an operational mode of political authority, democracy only plays a role in the political realm. Beyond this, it loses its functions. Even in some Western democracies, leaders and managers of many governmental departments are not elected.

The quality of people’s social lives is not determined by whether the country is democratic or not. It reflects the results of national governance. The unsatisfactory governance of a democratic country may damage the status of the regime. On the other hand, for national governance, the system of democracy is not a tool to solve all social problems. Those who expect democratic politics to offer all public goods will only see the failure of the system.


Chen Yao is from the School of International and Public Affairs at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.