Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
The Bush administration's support for trade, in spite of tensions, with the People's Republic of China, a policy known as “engagement,” is based on an expectation that economic growth leads to democracy. In the president's view, commercial links will “help an entrepreneurial class and a freedom-loving class grow and burgeon and become viable.” House Majority Whip Tom Delay predicts that “this middle class will eventually demand broad acceptance of democratic values.” President Clinton also asserted a natural progression linking growth, class formation, and democracy, or at least “civil society.” U.S. policy toward the largest Asian power thus relies upon a theory of futurity, an anticipation that large social forces unfold in time in predictable, perhaps even controllable ways and that China will follow pattern. President Bush does not present his view as a theory, and he may not realize it is one. Without elaboration or evidence, its familiar reasoning is accepted as valid in the United States and much of the world.
The historical record, however, offers only tenuous support for the trade-equals-middle class-equals-democracy formula. The twentieth century is rife with examples of industrial dictatorships, strongmen appealing to middle-class anxieties, and democracy arising amid poverty. China already has a larger middle class than India in 1947 or Virginia in 1776. The recent history of the surrounding Asian states – Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan – suggests that one-party rule thrives on rapid growth while decline brings democracy.