Did someone say democratization in China?



The idea of democracy is not new for contemporary Chinese. Anyone who has an elementary knowledge of or interest in modern Chinese history would be able to find its presence in newspapers and history books in the early 20th century. For the forerunners of democracy advocates who fought for an open and free China, they probably would have a bittersweet feeling toward the current outlook of the country, if they could anticipate its evolution throughout the last century. After all, part of their dreams was to make this ancient land compatible with the modern era. However, the journey to democracy has been long-winding and sometimes twisted because after a century of exploration, China is still struggling with democratization and finding its proper position in the global community.


The first and foremost question of discussing the prospect of democracy in China is the possibility of democratization in a society which has been dominated by imperial system — sustained by a political culture that values hierarchy, conformity and family-based community rather than civil liberty and individual sovereignty — for over 2,000 years, and the establishment of communism, which signaled a radical breakaway from China’s past.


An evaluation of the political tradition, which is a critical precondition for assessing the prospect of democratization, is necessary because China, contrary to Western countries such as Great Britain or the United States, did not have a favorable environment that espoused the rule of law, the sacredness of private property, or the separation of state and church. To some extent, introducing democracy into China is like conducting transplant surgery. This means that the best execution is to firstly examine the compatibility of the host country and imported democratic ideas.


The young generations during the May Fourth Movement in 1919, a social and political phenomenon in the era of the Republic of China, hailed science and democracy (popularly known as Mr. De and Mr. Sai or “德先生” and “赛先生” in Chinese) as the two main pillars for advancing modernization in China.



Navigating the landscape


Setting aside the country’s autocratic traditions – the intellectual origins that promoted the superiority of the ruler, such as the Chinese Legalism, and state practices of imperial authoritarianism, the starting point of theorizing China’s democratization would begin with the current political system.


On a higher level, the Chinese communist establishment was the realization of the former Soviet Union model with some localized modifications. When faced with a regime survival crisis in the late 1970s, as a result of the Cultural Revolution and political movements that caused the death of millions, the Chinese communists started loosening control of the centrally planned economic system.


Gradually it initiated economic reforms, for instance, allowing private individuals to participate in economic activities, which is at odds with the official communist ideology that denounces and forbids any economic action from the private sector. The Communist regime expected that by doing so it could win back the support of the general public (the regime had some setbacks before the popular discontent in the 1980s that amounted to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident) and sustain its ruling for an extended period of time.


And for the most part, this strategy worked in the Chinese regime’s favor. It somehow reached a tacit agreement with the people that the government could deliver material benefits through robust economic performance in exchange for their support, willingly or not. This informal agreement can be interpreted as a kind of passive consent from the people. It is passive because the ordinary people really did not have the right or the power to bargain with or even challenge the regime, so giving consent to the ruling class was a political compromise. For better or worse, ordinary people could fully take initiative in the marketplaces to improve their families’ material wellbeing. This is quite an improvement because, after all, they could have a choice to strive for a better life.


The trajectory of China’s economic development in the past 40 years also resonates with intellectuals with liberal inclinations and foreign governments with engagement policies toward China. The common thread of this school of thought and the actual foreign policies is that by integrating China into the global economy, the Marxist-Leninist state could gradually get used to the shared values and norms of the liberal international order. Perhaps the state eventually would recognize and adopt these universal beliefs and usher in political reforms that could pave the way for democratization. And eventually communism would be thrown away as a failed experiment. But, the assumption for all these plans to work is that the Chinese Communist Party would accept liberal democratic norms, instead of asserting and proposing its own alternative values and code of behaviors.


The classical democratization theory argues that economic growth, particularly the rise of the middle-class, is a necessary condition for a democratic transition, if not the cause of it (Note 1). To some extent, this is a reasonable explanation as long as a causal link between economic development and the process of democratization can be established.


Historically, the rapid industrialization in England gave rise to the empowered middle-class families and business groups in cities. To protect themselves from predatory government policies that may endanger their newly accumulated wealth and political liberties, the middle-class people started demanding political participation and accountability from the regime. This is the turning point in modern political history because the political system, once exclusive in nature and only reserved for the elites and the powerful oligarchy, had to share political power with outsiders in order to adapt and survive.


However, the precedents set by the pioneering democracies do not have to be the only viable path for democratic transitions. Claiming that having a strong and powerful middle-class is the single most important condition for democratization is arbitrary. Each country is different, in terms of history, culture, social norm, and the stage of political development. It could be the case that a country starts democratization without a dominant middle-class society. For instance, the majority of the post-communist states in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s did not stop fighting for liberty, national dignity and democracy without a vibrant middle-class group in their societies (perhaps except Germany).


Most of these states did not even have a powerful opposition group to lead the popular movements against the ruling communist parties, except the Solidarity in Poland. The point is that the thesis that the middle-class, as the most powerful social group, is critical for a state to democratize is not universally applicable, if not problematic and specious.


There is also the issue of the nature of the previous regime and its effects on the prospect of democratization. Navigating the complexities of the various paths of states transitioning to democracies requires a firm grasp of reality. For instance, the trajectories of two states — one being a one-party totalitarian dictatorship and the other being an authoritarian system that even allows the operations of opposition parties — toward democratization can be different. This discrepancy in regime type will most likely affect the level of success of democratization and the quality of democracy if established.


In the cases of the post-communist Eastern European states, their communist regimes were imposed, for the most part, by the external Soviet Union, which indicates that their struggle for national sovereignty and independence is intertwined with the movements of democratization. For ordinary citizens, communist totalitarianism, with its bureaucratic power, ideological indoctrination, suppression of political liberties, destruction of traditions and social fabric and in general its way of doing things, were considered abhorable experiences brought about by an evil empire and should be thrown away into the dustbin of history. In this sense, the task of democratization is easier in these states than that in Communist China.


The Communist Party of China took power in 1949 and established a full-blown totalitarian system shortly after it consolidated its power in the 1950s. Compared to the post-communist states in Eastern Europe, the communist movement in China starting from the early 1920s was endogenous in nature. Political activists, some radical and left-wing intellectuals and young students once believed that communism, the Soviet model, and Marxism were the cure for a weak China torn by domestic chaos. They were convinced that communism — shrouded and decorated by the appearance of seemingly “advanced” and “scientific” theory of Marxism from the West and the example of the Russian Revolution — was their new hope, without really understanding it, to transform this backward country and ward off imminent threats from external forces.


So it is safe to say that from its beginning, the Chinese communist movement has been interwoven with an acute sense of nationalism, which is still strong and prevalent today. Thus, discussion of democratization in China would have to tackle this puzzle: the possibility and the technical aspects of taming and transforming a Marxist-Lenninist one-party state with a totalitarian past.



No path toward democracy?


Regardless of the intricacies of the historical and political situation, it is still possible to delineate the scenarios that China may stumble toward democratization. Pessimists may contend that democracy would only continue to be a theoretical possibility for China, considering the regime’s antipathy to liberal democracy and its vigilance against any disobedience from the people, and the country’s lack of a democratic tradition.


But the truth is that any political system or governance model has its own fortes and weaknesses. In the world of politics, one’s strength or advantage could be turned into one’s fatal weak points. Figuring out the disturbing factors that hold back China’s democratization would also contribute to the overall understanding of the political system and its future.


If we analyze the political structure of a country as a dynamic model that involves several key players, we can easily identify the Communist Party of China as the single most important decision-maker in the system. As a self-claimed ultimate guardian of the state, the Party is the power source of the political establishment and the hierarchical bureaucracies embedded in the entire system. All political decisions, public policies and personnel appointments have to be approved by the Party at all levels of government.

But most importantly, the Party is the only legitimate gatekeeper to uphold the political order and ideology of the state. Any public institutions, private entities and organizations, as long as they have the potential for collective action and can exert some level of influence, is penetrated by the Party through establishing a party cell for supervision. This also means that its official ideology — Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought — is the only orthodox doctrine to be preached. Any alternatives, such as liberalism, libertarianism, republicanism, or even monarchy, are considered taboos.


This rigid, strict and artificial political structure allows no room for other alternatives. Liberal democracy is usually defined by open and fair elections, competition between two or more political parties and political pluralism in society. This is obviously unacceptable to a totalitarian regime who aims at absolute domination of the people through ideological indoctrination, political propaganda and terror, and complete control of society by means of political apparatus.


By delegitimizing the operations of political parties and religious forces, the communist totalitarians aim to establish their ideologies as the only licensed state religion. So the first challenge for China to democratize is to persuade the Party to forsake the dominance of the Marxist ideology and introduce competition among different schools of thought and make them institutionalized, if possible.


Anyone who bothers to study communism is aware of the notion of the state monopolizing the means of production in a socialist state. To put it in a rather simplistic way, the orthodox Marxist doctrine is a critique of the capitalist economy. It holds the view that most social and economic problems, if not all, are the results of unregulated capitalism in which the greedy capitalists, the landlords and the bourgeois somehow all colluded in their attempts to exploit the working class – the proletariat. The Marxists see the evolution of society as a constant class struggle. And their final solution is revolution by the proletarians to overthrow the existing system and establish a new socialist society.


Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has been successful in nationalizing the means of production and dictating economic activities in society. Despite the market reforms started about 40 years ago, the idea of private property, the fundamental element of a capitalist system, still has not been materialized. The socialist state has made it clear that private citizens can only possess the right to use a piece of land instead of owning it, which means that the state is the true owner of all the land resources of the country, if you come to think of it. In a sense, this would make investors in the real estate insecure, if they are aware of their situations. Compared to the precarious circumstances in China, property owners in countries where private property is protected, can possibly feel a sense of relief even if they have to deal with aggressive property taxes.


The significance of private property to an individual is not just about personal wealth and social status, more importantly, it is paramount to individual liberty. Having a piece of land under your control and the rule of law protecting it will possibly give you a sense of belonging and security. It may also incentivize you to take initiative to achieve more, either engaging in entrepreneurial activities to accumulate your wealth or contributing to more meaningful causes in the world.


It would feel strange and demoralized if you realize that what you have paid for after decades of hard work, or taking on mortgages, does not really belong to you because the state can arbitrarily take your property or impose progressive taxes on your property if you want to keep it when the “70-year rent” (in China, legally you are allowed to use the residential property you have purchased for 70 years) expires (Note 2). If liberal democracy is about absence of fear from aggressive and coercive political power, then private property protection is an integral part of the tasks for democratization.


Democracy can not exist without a strong and robust civil society. People with different cultural and social backgrounds can interact with each other without being discriminated against because of their identities, political and religious beliefs. A pluralistic civil society also allows citizens to associate and establish organizations based on their common pursuits. Ideally, a vibrant and healthy democracy is composed of such active civil organizations who share the fundamental goal of making society better without resorting to political authority. Because of the spontaneous and non-political nature of such civil association to achieve a level of self-governance, democracy is made to stabilize and sustain.


In contrast, an authoritarian government is inclined to crack down on civil society as the voices and discontent from different social groups would challenge the ruling and legitimacy of the ruling elite. In a totalitarian system, the existence of civil organizations or any entities outside the jurisdiction of the central authority is out of the question. Applied in the China case, the idea of civil society is unacceptable to the Chinese communist state because the plurality of political ideologies, as well as alternative ways of doing things in society practiced by civil organizations, directly confronts the official ideological doctrine and weakens the control of the state over society. What even worries the government more is the freedom to associate and the prevalence of the idea of self-governance.


One could argue that the communist government mobilizes everything it could for the purpose of regime survival, just as a democratic government would do to avoid losing election and power. The logic of power play is the same everywhere, so far as the argument would go. For people who buy into this line of reasoning, it is also acceptable to consider life in both a totalitarian and a democratic society essentially the same. And such a person would not find it an unbearable idea to forsake citizenship in a democracy and thereafter experience and explore another way of life in a communist or authoritarian state. But, the crux of the analogy is about the standpoint one chooses. A wealthy and established entrepreneur would perceive his/her living situation differently from a working-class professional in the current Chinese system. So it would be easy to spot a wealthy businessperson fleeing China to a western country, not the other way around. Still, the bigger question is why the regime sticks to the principle of total control of society.


One explanation offered by people who resonate with the argument of cultural relativism is that ordinary Chinese people have been accustomed to the patrimonial and hierarchical social relationships. A good government would offer security for some people who would exchange some level of autonomy and self-reliance for short-term material comfort and economic benefits. After all, the ideas of democracy, self-governance and individual liberty are relatively new to Chinese society, compared to the imperial tradition.


The traditional political culture casted a long shadow on the mind of a Chinese person. In ancient dynasties, a county magistrate would usually be considered as “parental official” (父母官) – if he was capable as a bureaucrat and also cared for the wellbeing of local people under his governance. Thus, democratization in China is not possible if there is no fundamental shift in ordinary people’s mode of thinking, which would require them to reevaluate their perception of the government-citizen and state-society relationships. This transformation is critical for the process of democratization, but more importantly, it matters to the quality of democracy after the transition.


What remains critical is the role of the Communist Party of China in affecting the prospect of democratization. Given the nature and history of the regime, it is highly unlikely that the Party and the central government would consider making concessions to the general public and introduce measures of liberalization, such as lifting restrictions on the freedom of press and association.


In China, the state-society relation can be so elusive to refute the established theories about democratic transitions. The contrast with some other developing countries who experienced democratic transitions in recent decades may shed some light on this. During the Third Wave democratization movements in the late 1980s, Brazil, Taiwan and South Korea and other developing countries all experienced rapid economic development years before the liberalization took place. With their economic power and social status rising, the newly emerged middle-class and social groups who are politically active, including intellectuals, business owners, highly educated college students and urban professionals, increasingly joined the fight for political accountability and individual liberty, and demanded political participation and representation, which eventually softened and weakened the bargaining power of the governments.


In China, the Party vs People question is essentially about the standpoint of the ordinary Chinese. As long as the middle-class people, as well as the society at large, are satisfied with the status quo – enjoying the economic benefits and security offered by the state, they may lack incentive to demand political liberalization. Considering the rise of nationalist sentiment among ordinary Chinese in recent years, the image of a rising China on the global stage adds a sense of national pride to the ordinary Chinese. If that is the case, we may have to wait for the delayed process of democratization, if it is possible at all.


The question of democratization for the Party is not simply about losing power and its control over the country. Like all dictatorial powers in the past, the autocracy has its deepest fear – the final judgement and evaluation from the people, if somehow the regime is challenged by popular movements. To avoid the rectification of transitional justice, it is reasonable to imagine that the Party would employ every possible means to obstruct the process of democratization, and even suppress people’s imagination of living in a democratic society through continuous and ubiquitous political propaganda and political terror.


Navigating politics in China is a sophisticated and challenging task, it is even more difficult to imagine China undergoing a democratic transition. It is wishful thinking that simply applying the ideas of liberalism or the experience of the Third Wave countries would somehow push China on its path toward democracy. Democratization in China must take a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Without carefully examining China’s modern history, modes of thinking of the ordinary Chinese people, and the country’s political tradition, the task is not simply formidable, but is most likely doomed to fail.






Note 1: The literature on the relationship between economic development and democratic transition is vast. Here are just two examples. See Carles Boix (2006), “Development and Democratization,” and Seymour Lipset (1959), “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”.


Note 2: Here’s a good piece explaining the intricacies of China’s state ownership of property and land. The Paradox at the Heart of China’s Property Regime.






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