Stanley's blog

Democracy in China

Academic papers and books on democracy continue to proliferate. Mainstream western opinion supports views such as:

• Rapid economic development quickens democratisation.
• The liberal democratic path is the only sustainable route to modernity.
• Non-democratic regimes are necessarily ridden with corruption and cronyism.

Two questions which require far more attention than they receive are:

• What is meant by democracy?
• What are the conditions which are conducive to democracy?

There is no universally accepted definition of democracy. There was consensus as to its meaning in the post-World War II period, but this was at a time when western views dominated in the international organisations. That is no longer so. Political, economic, social and cultural traditions vary considerably in different parts of the world. Looked at objectively, western democracy as currently practised has its flaws.

Meaning of democracy in China

What does democracy mean in China? Although the concept of democracy comes from Western culture, a simple form of democratic idea has been in existence in Chinese traditional culture. Much related to the people-oriented principle can be found in Confucianism. For example, Mencius once said: “The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the lightest.”

However, The Chinese people have never experienced democracy and they have not been able to be the masters of their country, due largely to Chinese traditional culture, which places its main emphasis on the rule of virtue, placing the destiny of the country and the wellbeing of the people on the morality of the ruler. Such moral expectations are often unreliable. The Chinese traditional culture has always entertained a hope that the world will be ruled by the sages. But in the real world, the rulers are not the sages who are always great, glorious, and correct.

We in the West believe in our style of democracy and it has served us well: but it is by no means perfect. ‘Democracy’ is an emotive word when it comes to applying it elsewhere in the world. It is much more sensible to promote the ‘rule of law’ rather than democracy. Beijing rejects western democracy but supports the rule of law.

At the root of any definition of democracy is the supremacy of the people. There is no universal agreement, however, as to how the people must be represented. There are considerable variations even within the Atlantic community.

In East Asia (the most populous and fastest developing region in today’s world), considerable emphasis is placed on community, social harmony and order: responsibility of the individual as a member of the community, rather than responsibility to the community. Put another way, the community is valued as a greater good than individualism, however responsible.

A disservice is done to the promotion of western-style democracy when we lecture other regions and expect them to justify themselves in terms of western liberal morality. Worse still, we overlook the hypocrisy of our own society and the way its ‘excesses’ are seen elsewhere. Can we honestly say that our politicians really represent the electorate, corruption is not a problem and our media always acts in the interests of society?

Perceptions of democracy

Perceptions of democracy vary greatly between China and Europe and the US. To understand the Chinese approach, it is necessary to look at its history and culture. A recent article by Yijia Jing of Fudan University (‘Perception of democracy in China: The impact of democracy on China-EU relations’regret link unavailable) is very helpful and I have borrowed extensively from it below.

The Chinese believed in equality and liberation, but democracy as a political concept and social practice never emerged in ancient China. Chinese society was organized according to Confucian philosophy which put the emphasis on a hierarchal structure when aggressing morality and social relations.

Sun Yat-sen (founding father of the KMT) developed “Three principles of the people”, the last being that of minquan ie democracy. Sun’s democratic ideas were broadly similar to western ones, although a political system was not formally established until 1929.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) always advocated democracy. According to Mao, democracy empowered the people to supervise the government and make every citizen responsible. The CCP built after 1949 what is regarded as a “people’s democratic dictatorship” and the “democratic centralism system.” Now it puts forward “socialist democracy” and “intra-party democracy.”

The current Constitution stipulates that citizens enjoy many democratic rights but they are not always effectively implemented. The country therefore remains autocratically ruled.

To understand differences in the Chinese perception of democracy, it is first desirable to understand the perception of what democracy is, by both the people and the ruling elite. The only available data is the Asia Barometer Survey begun by Cheo University in 2003. While its accuracy cannot be measured, answers given are neverthelss very interesting:

• Most Chinese believe that democracy is a good thing.
• Only 3.1% deny that China is a democracy; 10.3% regard it as a full democracy.

This emphasizes the differences in perception of democracy.

Democracy requires freedom of speech, publication, association, parade and demonstration; protection of which is in Art 87 of the 19 54 Constitutions.

• Respondents were more/most satisfied with freedom of speech (68.2%), the right to participate in organizations (70.4%) and the right to vote (75.5%).
• They are satisfied with the right to gather and demonstrate (50.3%), and the right to monitor and criticize government (52.5% & 49.1%).

This again shows how perceptions differ. The data shows that people tend not to confront government when they are not satisfied. The vitality of democracy (western version), as a collective mechanism of decision-making, requires active public participation.

• Most ordinary Chinese (90.4%) treat it as a duty to vote at elections, but
• 69.4%) say that they rarely vote, never voted or don’t have the right to vote.
• 58.5% don’t believe they have the power to influence government policy or actions.

This inevitably promotes apathy and cynicism.

• A small percentage dispute the widespread corruption of officials.

A surprising result.

• 64.8% believeChinese traditional culture superior to others; only 6.9% deny this.

Socialist values would appear to have influenced Chinese actions and their understanding of democracy.
• 69.5% believe equality to be more important than freedom.
• Priorities are maintaining order (51.1%, rising prices (35.6%), more say in government decisions (10.5%) and freedom of speech (2.8%).

Pragmatism appears to overrule democracy. Note the government’s wide support for maintaining order, and the lack of importance attached to free speech.

Hu Jintao‘s Report to the 17th National CCP Congress 2007 mentioned democracy 69 times.

Turning to the elite’s perception on democracy, the CCP argues that social democracy is a combination of Marxism democracy theories and Chinese reality, and a combination between western achievements and the democratic elements of China’s traditional culture and institutions.

Four distinctive characteristics of China’s socialist political democracy are proffered: First, China’s democracy is a democracy in which the overwhelming majority of the people act as masters of state affairs. Second, Chinese democracy is a people’s democracy under the leadership of the CCP. Third, China’s democracy is a democracy guaranteed by the people’s democratic dictatorship. Fourth, China is a democracy with democratic centralism as the basis organizational principle and mode of operation.

The CCP, through Hu Jintao, states that incremental democratisation is accepted by the CCP, at all levels and in all areas.

A mature modern democracy has been widely established in Western countries and is being promoted and popularized throughout the world. The Chinese leadership has been studying different forms of democracy practised elsewhere.

In recent years, the CCP has promoted the multi-candidate election system. At present, it also emphasizes intra-party democracy, which is a progress in comparison with the past. But a multi-party state is not under consideration.

The party recognizes the dangers of corruption. It has urged officials at all levels that they must be clean and self-disciplined. But over the past 20 years, corruption has become increasingly severe, which shows that moral restraint is very weak. Consulting the political systems of the countries around the world, indicates that the system of ‘separation of powers’ can better restrain power and combat corruption.

Freedom of speech means that the people have a right to express their opinions. They can openly criticize the government and openly publicize their own political views. So long as their views do not constitute a slander against others or the government, so long as their views do not propagate violence, pornography, or obviously go against the basic morality of mankind, the government has no right to interfere or suppress them. Freedom of association means that the people have a right to jointly establish various social organizations to prevent their own rights or benefits from being encroached upon. In this way, they can avoid excessive encroachment of their rights or benefits by the government.

Stability and territorial integrity are Beijing priorities. This is cited as the principal reasons for restricting press freedom and the independence of NGOs. Hitherto, have been successful in controlling the news media but a losing battle is inevitably being fought over internet, blogging and social sites and texting.

The news media and NGOs can be valuable tools to expose corruption and environmental, food safety and other scandals. This involves risks and Chinese experience of the western press is hardly an encouragement for them. An innovative society also needs freedom of expression.

A military view

An unexpected article appeared in Phoenix (published in Hong Kong but freely available on mainland Chinese news stands and on the internet). The author is General Liu Yazhou, whose father was a senior PLA officer and his father-in-law Li Xiannian, one of China’s ”Eight Immortals” and former President of China. General Liu was recently made Political Commissar of the National Defence University, promoted from deputy Political Commissar of the PLA Airforce.

The thrust of Liu’s article was that China can either embrace American-style democracy or accept Soviet-style collapse. China’s rise, he believes, depends on adopting the US system of government rather than challenging its presence off China’s eastern coast.

”If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent, and fails to place those who best represent the system and its people into leadership positions, it is certain to perish.” ”The secret of US success is its long-surviving rule of law and the system behind it,” he says. Democracy is the most urgent; without it there is no sustainable rise.”

”A nation that is mindful only of the power of money is a backward and stupid nation,” he writes. ”What we could believe in is the power of the truth. The truth is knowledge and knowledge is power.” This national power requires major political reform. ”In the coming 10 years, a transformation from power politics to democracy will inevitably take place.”

Liu argued that the Soviet system did not collapse due to too much political reform (the common thinking), but due to the reform arriving too late.

”Stability weighed above everything and money pacified everything, but eventually the conflict intensified and everything else overwhelmed stability,” he wrote.

His article is remarkable. He even raises Tiananmen writing that ”a nationwide riot” was caused by the incompatibility of China’s traditional power structures with reform.


There is a huge gap between western and Chinese understanding of democracy. This gap may narrow over the years but it is for the Chinese to decide what they want, and most of their perceptions of democracy are very different from western ones.

The subject is not taboo to discuss in China. There was a lively debte between scholars, led by Yu Keping, before the 17th National Congress. The article by General Lu shows that China’s political and ideological struggles are more lively than commonly thought, coming of course the rotation of leaders in the Central Military Commission and then the Politburo in 2012. Many Chinese worry that political reforms are blocked by powerful military, corporate and princeling interest groups that benefit from the status quo.

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