Is Chinese Democracy out of Reach?

In Lu Xun’s Nahan or A Call to Arms,” he makes an interesting comparison of Chinese society:

Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?” [In turn his friend in the story returns,] “But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house. [1]

During his time, Lu Xun was an active critique of the existing warlord system of China. In China, democracy is not an influential idea. In Chinese democracy, priorities are evaluated differently from western democracy. Although there have been attempts at democratization in the past, liberal democracy will most likely not be achieved in the 21st century due to political strongmen, nationalism, and its authoritarian resilience.

A liberal democracy is vastly different from the current structure of the People’s Republic of China. Liberal democracy can be defined as a representative political system that is characterized by multiparty elections, separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government[2]. Whereas the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist position of democracy is built on an economic foundation. Mao is recorded as saying, “Democracy for the people and dictatorship over the reactionaries, the combination of these two constituent parts is the People’s Democratic Dictatorship”[3]. Under the Chinese communist system there was a written democracy, but decisions were still made by the unelected politburo.

China’s second core leadership, Deng Xiaoping, believed that China should never adopt a western-style democracy, the thinking was that the multi-party representative system and a system of checks and balances were a democratic monopoly of the capitalist class. Instead, especially in light of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Deng preferred incremental changes in his reforms rather than a shock therapy style. According to Deng, “without political stability, there could be no democracy.” And these stable reforms can be achieved through intraparty democracy[4].

These differences between the West and the East are the product of different histories. Whereas the United States, the typical example of a liberal democracy has a short history and its entire history is based in democratic tradition; China is one of the longest lasting cohesive histories, has no historical background to support democracy. Although that history alone can never determine a country’s future it does play a small role. The largest extent of democracy that existed in the Late Qing dynasty was a process called memorialization in which high ranking officials could draft a document on matters that concerned them and send it to the Emperor. The mainstream ideology of China, Confucianism focuses on the rule of virtue rather than rule of law[5]. So, they would examine the morality of a leader instead of whether that leader’s power was based in legitimacy.

Despite this history there have been pushes for democracy by the Chinese people and always someone willing to stand up and speak out. The May Fourth and the New Culture Movement was one of the earliest and largest emergences of a civil society[6]. Since then, any democratic opening or loosening has always been slammed shut by the Communist Party.

The economic reforms promulgated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has transformed china into a heavy hitter of the International Market. This economic development is a direct result of the reform of the traditional socialist economic system. Structure of ownership was reformed, and the economy was diversified. Communes were abandoned and replaced with contracts and pay-scales. This formerly shut, and thoroughly planned economy was to a small extent replaced by a free market system. Prices were now subject to supply and demand pressure and international exchange rates.[7] It is difficult to make such economic democratization and decentralization without social reforms as well. The CCP’s shift from absolute centralism toward an incremental democracy has resulted in many reforms.

China’s civil society has grown, in 1989 there were a little over 1600 civil society organizations and now there are at least 700,000 nationwide. There has also even been experimentation in direct elections and local self-governance at the village level. In 1979 the Law for the Election of National and Local People’s Congress Representatives mandated that all people’s congress representatives below the county level must be directly elected. A decade later, the Organic Law of the Village Administration of Committees of the PRC provided a framework for the gradual expansion of the self-governance system in villages, nationwide. By the end of 1997, 60 percent of villages nationwide had begun the transition toward the direct free election of village administrators.[8] However, when there is reform, people with vested interests, and economic gains to be had, corruption always follows. Reform leaders knew that there were some party bureaucrats were hindering economic reforms[9]. This corruption was due to the political system itself.

In response to this corruption Deng Xiaoping put forth the “Four Modernizations” but a democracy movement was brewing on the side streets of Tiananmen square. 1978-1979’s Democracy wall was the place where old Cultural Revolution wounds were given space to breathe. A notable example of a participant is Wei Jingsheng who was exemplary and unusual since he put his name and address on his work that he posted on the Democracy Wall. his wall poster campaign, called “the Fifth Modernization: Democracy” insisted that unless democracy was put into place, all other modernizations would fail. He was a part of the “sent down” generation and spent some time in the People’s Liberation Army. Wei edited an unofficial newspaper even though he only completed a high school level education. His core point in his “Fifth Modernization was that” democracy was not solely the result of social development, it was also the condition for the development of higher production.[10] But in the end, Jingsheng was arrested along with other activists and the regime tightened controls.

But the road from dictatorship to democracy is the most political transition of all and you cannot skip any stages of developing a democracy. The Arab spring has wilted, Thailand’s elections have only resulted in coups, and Cambodia and Malaysia both have had deeply flawed elections. There is no guarantee that a newborn democracy will survive to maturation. Any elections however, even if flawed or ignored can put a country on the right path since it can whet the people’s appetite for the real thing. Another feature of a successful transition is the degree of consent by the regimes being replaced. The military, often referred to in other countries as the “deep state” must have an incentive to not take the power into their own hands. Since it has empirically shown that violence begets more violence, if China were to have a change it must have a peaceful mass movement. A third-party mediator has been helpful in past transitions in other countries such as Myanmar as well as foreign sponsors to assist and buttress blooming democracies and the sprouts of rule of law.[11]

Perhaps the most infamous of all democracy movements of China is the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. This massive demonstration was one in which more than a million people participated and lasted months. It was complete with students, hunger strikes, workers, intellectuals, and others. It was initiated to demand a posthumous rehabilitation of the former communist party chairman Hu Yaobang and transformed into a protest against corruption and a demonstration for democracy. In response, the People’s Liberation army’s guns pointed at the people themselves and dispersed the crowd with live ammunition after almost a month of instating marshal law. No one is sure exactly how many people died but the estimates range from 180 to 10,454.[12] This protest more than any other called for the establishment of direct and competitive elections throughout all levels of government (Goldman).

After Tiananmen massacre, there were widespread predictions that the CCP would collapse, but they were proved wrong. According to regime theory, the CCP should’ve collapsed under such pressure. Regime theory puts forth the idea that Authoritarian systems are inherently fragile because of increased internal resistance, overreliance on coercion, over centralization of decision making and predominance of personal power over institutional norms. The resulting purges of the party muted the differences of opinion within the party and transformed the different ideologies to become more homogenous.[13] Per capita income was $250 in 1989 grew to $1200 in 2006. Although politically damaged the CCP were hardly without resources. They tightened control over the media and heightened crackdown on any dissent. The regime brought inflation under control, restarted economic growth, expanded foreign trade, and increased in absorption of Foreign Direct Investment. Political leaders are now better educated than any other previous Chinese leadership of the 20th century.[14]

Instead of failing under the democratization pressures the regime reconsolidated itself. This proves that the CCP is not weak nor is it lacking policy option. The argument that democracy, freedom, and human rights leading to stronger stability hold no appeal for these men. Now that China has abandoned its utopian ideology and cult leadership, empowered a technocratic elite, introduced bureaucratic regularization and specialization and they have slightly reduced control over private speech and action leads us to a disturbing possibility. China has proven that totalitarian regimes can adapt to modernity and integration with the global economy.

So, is there any chance of democracy in China? Based on the recent social crackdowns by Xi Jinping, the relative stagnation of the economy[15] and the new constitutional amendment that would change the Chinese presidential term, there may be an opening for another movement of democracy. Due to the change in the “electoral” system and other recent corruption events that took place in Peking University due to sexual harassment claims there have been the largest mobilization of student protest since Tiananmen.[16] The hunger for democracy that had been whet by local village elections and noncompetitive National People’s Congress elections may surface again. Modern technologies such as blockchain may facilitate Chinese democracy movements since the “great firewall” is still firmly in place.

In order for China to democratize successfully it must balance the power of the people, socio-economic conditions, and state capacity, and keep in mind that political elites will have a lot of say if China were to transition. To survive, the government needs to be strong enough to have a monopoly on violence, that is to say no one else can threaten its citizens other than the state. Historically, the CCP has had no issue with this point. If china were to democratize, it most likely would not follow the path of many middle eastern countries which have no history of “stateness” But those same citizens need to have enough power to constrain that violence. As we’ve seen with Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao Zedong, the importance of political leadership in China has been paramount. This will most likely still hold true if China were to transition and consolidate democracy.[17] This will prove to be one of the largest obstacles in China’s democratic transition.

The Chinese Communist Party will do everything it can to maintain its own integrity. Political elites in China will be inflexible in providing the conditions for a peaceful transition. A history of uncompromising political leadership that has successfully stopped every push for democratization and has actually used those crises to strengthen itself shows disfavor toward the possibility of transition. Recently there has been an even greater uptick in Chinese nationalism in response to its joining the World Trade Organization and other pressures of globalization. There has always been a nationalist streak in Chinese history, its fundamentalist interpretation of sovereignty, its nonnegotiable one china policy regarding Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. But these contentions have created several conflicts that could easily spin out of control during a transitional period.[18]

All in all, while optimism prevents me from believing that democracy is completely out of grasp for the people of China, taking into account modern Chinese history, a functioning democracy will most likely be out of reach in the 21st century due to nationalism, uncompromising political leadership, and the CCP’s transition-based norms that foster its resilience. There will always be people, like Lu Xun and Wei Jingsheng who will speak out against corruption and injustice. Economic reforms create an opening for the people of China, but if stability is continued to be prioritized over all else, incremental democratic reforms will not be enough to make a full transition and China will not fulfill its full potential without its “Fifth Modernization”.

 

 

Works Cited

Edition, Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia 6th. Tiananmen Square. n.d.

Fewsmith, Joseph. China after Tiananmen. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Goldman, Merle. Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era. Harvard University Press, 1995.

International, The Economist. From Dictatorship to Democracy the Road less Travelled. 26 November 2015. 13 May 2018.

Jingsheng, Wei. “Asia for educators.” 1978. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/cup/wei_jingsheng_fifth_modernization.pdf. 13 May 2018.

Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

Liu, Yu. “Lessons of New Democracies for China.” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2018): 105-120.

Nathan, Andrew J. Chinese Democracy. University of California Press, 1986.

—. “China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience.” Association for Asian studies (2003): 6-17.

Yang, Yuan. “Sexual harassment cases Trigger China Student Protests.” 24 April 2018. Financial Times. 8 May 2018.

 

[1] Lau, Joseph S. M., and Howard Goldblatt. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press, 2007.

[2] Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

 

[3] Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

[4] Goldman, Merle. Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era. Harvard University Press, 1995.

 

[5] Nathan, Andrew J. Chinese Democracy. University of California Press, 1986.

[6] Nathan, Andrew J. Chinese Democracy. University of California Press, 1986.

 

[7] Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

[8] Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

 

[9] Goldman, Merle. Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era. Harvard University Press, 1995.

[10] Jingsheng, Wei. “Asia for educators.” 1978. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/cup/wei_jingsheng_fifth_modernization.pdf. 13 May 2018.

[11] International, The Economist. From Dictatorship to Democracy the Road less Travelled. 26 November 2015. 13 May 2018.

 

[12] Edition, Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia 6th. Tiananmen Square. n.d.

[13] Fewsmith, Joseph. China after Tiananmen. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

 

[14] Nathan, Andrew J.”China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience.” Association for Asian studies (2003): 6-17.

[15] Liu, Yu. “Lessons of New Democracies for China.” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2018): 105-120.

 

[16] Yang, Yuan. “Sexual harassment cases Trigger China Student Protests.” 24 April 2018. Financial Times. 8 May 2018.

[17] Liu, Yu. “Lessons of New Democracies for China.” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2018): 105-120.

[18] Liu, Yu. “Lessons of New Democracies for China.” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2018): 105-120.

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