Stanley's blog

Mutual understanding is essential to underpin a long term strategic relationship. Despite the common belief that Europeans and Americans share basic, common values, languages and culture, there is clearly considerable lack of mutual transatlantic understanding. Europeans and Americans are very different in many ways, think differently, are influenced differently, and frequently see problems differently and in a different context.

Imagine then the lack of mutual Sino-European understanding, with our very different histories, cultures, languages, political and social conditions: misperceptions abound.

With this in mind, I strongly recommend a recently published book, “Democracy is a Good Thing” by Yu Keping, published by The Brookings Institution, with the active involvement of “The John L Thornton Center at Brookings, with a presence in Beijing at Tsinghua University.

Many would have assumes that with such a title, the book must have been written by A Chinese dissident, living in the US. On the contrary. Yu, although only 50 this year, is a pre-eminent Chinese political scientist, serving as a visiting professor at a dozen of the PRC’s most prestigious universities. He is also a political insider, holding a ministry-level official position under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

To those who do not know China well, there is a vibrant discussion taking place, both inside the Party and between scholars, on democracy in China. Unfortunately, most of the articles and papers have not been translated into English and, therefore, remain largely unknown outside China.

The PRC, while an autocracy, is not a dictatorship: major policies have to be agreed by the nine man CCP Central Committee, which seeks consensus within itself and its supporting constituencies. Scholars frequently express themselves freely and criticize the government, provided that this is within the objective of creating a “harmonious society”. Before the important 17th five year Conference of the National Committee of the CCP in 2007, the leadership encouraged a public debate between scholars on democracy.

‘Democracy’ cannot be defined in an absolute, normative way. It is essentially a form of government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power by the people. It varies considerably, even between western countries. The American version is based on a strict separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary; but some argue that money distorts this democracy. The UK is a parliamentary democracy, but in practice the government has a near absolute power of legislation unless it has only a small parliamentary democracy. France has a powerful president but a weak parliament. Germany is a federation. Switzerland is a confederation, with a weak central government: major policies are put to public referendum.

In his report to the 17th Conference of the CCP National Committee, Premier Wen Jiabao talked at length about political reform and mentioned ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ 61 times. On another occasion, Wen said that, “When we talk about democracy, we usually refer to the three most important components: elections, judicial independence, and supervision based on checks and balances.”

President Hu Jintao clearly wishes to increase intra-Party democracy:

“We need to improve institutions for democracy, diversify its forms and expand its channels, and we need to carry out democratic election, decision-making, administration and oversight in accordance with the law to guarantee the people’s rights to be informed, to participate, to be heard, and to oversee.

Hu also pointed out that, “There is no modernization without democracy.”

Yu Keping’s original article, “Democracy is a Good Thing”, was first published in autumn 2006 in the Beijing Daily and subsequently republished in most major newspapers. The key points he makes are:

  • Democracy is a good thing.
  • Under conditions of democratic rule, officials must be elected by the citizens, gaining the endorsement of the majority of the people.
  • Officials’ powers can be curtailed by the citizens.
  • Democracy has to be promoted and implemented by the citizens themselves and government officials representing the interests of the people.
  • Not everything about democracy is good.
  • Democracy allows the citizens to go into the streets, hold assemblies and engage in actions that can fuel political instability.
  • Democracy can complicate and often involves repeated negotiations and discussions, thus reducing efficiency, while increasing delays and costs;
  • Democracy often affords opportunities for certain sweet-talking politicians to mislead the people.
  • But among all the political systems that have been invented, democracy is the one with the fewest number of flaws. Relatively speaking, democracy is the best political system for humankind.
  • Democracy cannot do everything. It mainly regulates political lives.
  • But democracy guarantees basic human rights, offers equal opportunity to all people, and represents a basic human value.
  • Democracy can destroy the legal system, cause the social and political order to go out of control, and even impede economic development. The democratic process can also propel dictators onto the political stage.
  • At their roots, however, these faults are not the faults of democracy as a system but rather the faults of politicians.
  • Implementing democracy requires the presence of economic, cultural and political preconditions: the unconditional promotion of democracy will bring disastrous consequences.
  • Political democracy is the trend of history, and it is the inevitable trend for all nations of the world to move towards democracy.
  • But the timing and speeds of its development and the choice of form and system are conditional.
  • An ideal democratic system must be related to the economic level of development of society, the regional politics, the international environment, the national tradition of political culture, the quality of the politicians and the people, and the latter’s daily customs.
  • Democratic politics is a political art because it requires collective wisdom to determine how to obtain the maximum democratic effects, while paying the minimum political and social price.
  • Democracy cannot force people to do things: it’s the people who make the choices. No-one has the right to regard itself as the embodiment of democracy and therefore able to force the people to do this or not to do that in the name of democracy.
  • But democracy requires the rule of law, authority, and sometimes even coercion to maintain social order.
  • We Chinese are building a strong, modern socialist nation with unique Chinese characteristics.
  • Democracy is not only a good thing for China, it is an essential one.
  • We want to absorb the best aspects of human political culture from around the world, but we will not import wholesale an overseas political model.
  • Our construction of political democracy must be closely integrated with the history, culture, traditions and existing social conditions in our nation.
  • Only this way can the people of China truly enjoy the sweet fruits of political democracy.


The hope of Yu Keping and his fellow thinkers is that democracy will be developed incrementally in China so as to avoid social disruption and be durable. While he does not mention it in this paper, the strengthening of civil society is an essential first step, together with intra-party democracy, elections at grass roots level and administrative reforms. As Yu puts it, “if grassroots democracy means pushing forward democracy from the bottom up, intraparty democracy entails doing so from the inside out”. In his view, “without intraparty democracy”, it will “be difficult to attain democracy in China”. But he does not predict a timetable.

Some Chinese intellectuals argue in favour of a more radical transition to democracy. Some overseas Chinese dissidents attack Yu Keping for putting up a smokescreen, maintaining that the CCP is not interested in democracy.

Views as to the ultimate form Chinese democracy will take are diverse: ranging from the western model to the Japanese model (dominated by the Liberal Democratic party) to the Korean multi-party system.

The current leadership is focusing on intra-party democracy ie democratizing the CCP’s processes. The Party has the power but not necessarily the legitimacy. Hitherto, the received wisdom has been that its legitimacy depends on economic growth. But in today’s economic times, good governance becomes all the more important. Good governance can lead to “stability, order, trust and efficiency” (Cheng Li in the book’s introduction).

The pursuance of political reform will largely depend on the Chinese leadership and its incentives to reform. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao seem currently convinced that this in their interests, but a surge of extreme social unrest could persuade them otherwise. How then to make democracy safe for China is therefore the challenge?

It’s fundamentally a question of equilibrium: how “to preserve the Chinese cultural and sociopolitical identity in the era of globalization and the imperative for the country to participate more actively in the construction of a harmonious world” (as so well put by Cheng Li).

Human rights in China remains a controversial issue. Western hypocrisy may have reduced the public admonition of the Chinese leadership by their western peers. The curbing of excesses of human rights abuse and greater freedom of the press are both in China’s interests. China will act, as with all countries, act first and foremost in her own interests. We should therefore suggest why human rights progress is in China’s own interests.

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  1. I do not often have the opportunity to debate China and its politics with other Chinese in Australia.

    This may sound surprising given that I am married to a Chinese woman, am aquainted with many Chinese, and often have dinner with various Chinese born Australians.

    Oddly, I have reluctantly concluded that I have a greater interest in China’s history and its current politics than most Chinese that I come in contact with. This is a shame given the richness of the cultural and political landscape that is China.

    I find that even my very own wife lacks any genuine interest in discussing the increasing prominence of China’s actions on the world stage, and what its internal struggle for democracy means for those living in China. She is more interested in events that may impact her directly, such as the value of the yuan or the performance of the Chinese stock market.

    There are however a few people I know who do have very interesting views on China, and who are not afraid to express themselves. These people have grown up in China, and so their views are of paticular interest to me.

    Having said that I should state from the outset that not only am I an unabashed Sinophile, but that I also appreciate the difficulties that the Chinese government must deal with in order to keep such a large and diverse nation together.

    Unlike many of my highly educated colleagues at my work, I do not take the view that democracy above all is the most important goal of a nation. Quality of life must come first, and it is here that I think the cautious but ultimately benelovent approach of the Chinese government shines through.

    Make no mistake, I realise that the government has made many serious mistakes and that poverty and corruption is rampant in China, but I am speaking in relative and pragmatic terms, not in ideal terms.

    What has really caught me by surprise however has been the general agreement on this point from those least expected.

    Why is this so surpising you ask?

    Well, these very same Chinese that I refer to were the same Chinese who as students in Australia in the late 1980s effectively defected from China after the Tianemen Square protests. These people had a rabid resentment for the oppressive Chinese government at the time, so much so that they permanently left China as a result.

    These same people now praise the current Chinese government and defend its actions.

    Surprising yes, but not remarkable given the changes in China over the last 20 years.

    Overall, I think that the general political apathy of most Chinese Australians, and the otherwise supportive attitude towards the Chinese government’s iron hold of the vestiges of political power, says a lot about the Chinese, their aspirations, values and their hopes.

    It seems that at least for Chinese Australians, health, wealth and happiness is the ultimate goal of life, and although political freedom is a nice to have for most people, it plays little role in the thinking of most Chinese.

  2. Though the article was for China but I think democracy is much better for all countries both in letter and spirits. It means the preservation of people’s rights should be made priority and the foremost agenda by the politicians.

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