2018 National People’s Congress: Why China May Never be a Democracy

By Tyler Jiang

Since the “opening up” policies of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, China has rapidly embraced capitalism and has become the world’s second largest economy in an astonishingly short period of time. The economic liberalization was a surprise to observers, and many hoped that China’s political system would soon follow suit. But for almost four decades China’s government has not only been able to open up its economy and society, but has managed to stave off political liberalization and it seems like China will be able to continue its current course well into the future – a combination of capitalism and authoritarian rule.

Since the 1980s, foreign observers and Chinese academics, have believed that China was on a path for democracy. [1] The theory behind democratization in China was that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would only be able to maintain its hold on power and its legitimacy by ensuring that China’s economy and standard of living continued to rise at a rapid pace, giving Chinese citizens no reason to complain about living under an authoritarian regime.[2] As China’s economic growth slows down and the government is unable to deliver on its promises, it will be forced to democratize in order to remain in power. Even as China’s economy slowed down in the aftermath of the 2008 crash and political unrest bubbled in Hong Kong, however, China’s government has been able to hold onto power without much trouble. The CCP has survived many trials, and it seems like China will not rid itself of authoritarian rule any time soon, placing this democratization theory on unstable ground.

At the National People’s Congress in March, 2018, China’s constitution was modified, removing the two-term limit on the presidency, allowing Xi Jinping to remain as China’s leader indefinitely.[3] This move by Xi was foreseen last year when he began to consolidate power.[4] The approval of the modification to the constitution is confirmation that China is now further away from democracy than it was in 1980 when the country began to liberalize. The Congress is known as a rubber stamp for the CCP and this year was no different. Xi was quickly, and unanimously, elected to a second term as China’s President, and a close ally and former head of China’s anti-corruption campaign, Wang Qishan, was elected to the newly created position of Vice-President.[5]

The 2018 National Congress has cemented Xi Jinping as China’s leader into the foreseeable future as he surrounds himself with allies and removes the term limit. This is a huge blow for pro-democracy activists not only within China, but around the world, as China’s government tightens its grip on the country. Xi Jinping’s rise, coupled with an increasingly efficient surveillance and censorship system, has made it difficult for democracy to thrive in the China today. Though it is not impossible for China to democratize, it is not something to expect in the next couple decades and a definite path towards democracy is unknown. As Xi Jinping’s power continues to grow, so much so that Xi is now the most powerful man in China since Mao Zedong.


Tyler Jiang is a senior at Rowan University where he studies International Studies and History.



[1] Yu Liu and Dingding Chen, “Why China will Democratize,” The Washington Quarterly (Winter, 2012). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0163660X.2012.641918

[2] Larry Diamond, “Why East Asia – Including China – Will Turn Democratic Within a Generation,” The Atlantic, (January 24, 2012). https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/why-east-asia-including-china-will-turn-democratic-within-a-generation/251824/

[3] BBC News, “China’s Xi allowed to remain ‘president for life’ as term limits removed,” BBC News (March 11, 2018). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-43361276

[4] See article, “Xi Enters New Era of Power,” http://eng.majalla.com/2017/10/article55254726/xi-enters-new-era-power

[5] Scott Heidler, “Xi Jinping elected for second term after a unanimous vote,” Al-Jazeera News (March 17, 2018). https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/xi-jinping-elected-term-unanimous-vote-180317135826857.html