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Democracy: Made in China

Posted on Dec 15, 2010
AP / Greg Baker

Residents fill out forms before voting in local legislative elections in Beijing in 2006.

By Steven Hill

(Page 3)

Given that the Communist Party has a membership of 73 million people—larger than most nations—such a “democratic vanguard” holds potential. The Vietnamese Communist Party—whose structure historically has mirrored China’s—introduced competitive elections for its party chief several years ago, and some insiders think this may be a harbinger for China. Some are encouraged by the fact that the current president, Hu Jintao, is the first not to handpick his successor, who instead was selected as the result of a secret poll of Communist Party officials. That shares some features with how parliamentary democracies choose their prime minister via a vote by members of parliament, except in China’s case it’s all done in secret and the people voting for the leadership are unelected.

If internal elections become more widespread, then the lines of ideological difference within political elite circles might become more clearly drawn, which could further spur calls for some kind of representational structure. From the outside looking in, Chinese political and ideological thought looks fairly rigid and monolithic, but from the inside already there are signs of opposing viewpoints and dissent, with a “left” and a “right” emerging. The dominant policy since the late 1970s established the primacy of the free market, but today this is being challenged by a new left which advocates a gentler form of capitalism. A very progressive battle of ideas is pitting the rich against poor, the coasts against inland provinces and cities against the countryside. Some of the most powerful authorities appear to be listening to the progressive critique, at least with one ear. At the end of 2005, the Chinese leadership published the “11th five-year plan,” its blueprint for a “harmonious society,” and for the first time since the post-Mao reforms began in 1978, economic growth was not described as the overriding goal for the Chinese state. The leaders talked instead about introducing the bare bones of a progressive, European-style support system, with promises of a 20 percent year-on-year increase in pension funds, unemployment benefits, health insurance and maternity leave.

While currently playing out in published polemics, on the Internet and in the party congresses, internal Communist Party elections could become a natural outgrowth of these existing debates. Former maximum leader Deng Xiaoping was quoted in 1987 as saying there would be national elections in 50 years, by 2037. So China may be right on schedule with its democratic trajectory.

Meritocracy vs. Democracy


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But if Pan Wei doesn’t believe in democratic elections, what does he want? Sounding like an anachronistic noble from the court of a long-ago Chinese emperor, Pan advocates for a “Legalist” model that promotes the rule of law rather than elections. He waxes eloquently—though not entirely convincingly—about a Confucian-style meritocracy in which leaders are selected for their superior knowledge, skills and education. “No George Bushes would be selected through such a process,” he says, which sounds momentarily comforting. But if no one is elected, then who determines the rules of law? Who gets to decide, and how are they selected? These are basic philosophical questions, and Pan’s vision edges back into George Orwell territory, where the ruled eventually become the rulers only to take their turn at being a self-perpetuating dominator class.

More interesting, perhaps, is the vision promoted by Confucian-inspired intellectuals like Jiang Qing who have put forward an intriguing proposal for a tricameral legislature, with legislators in one chamber selected based on merit and in the others based on elections of some kind. One of these elected chambers may be reserved only for Communist Party members, the other for representatives elected by everyday Chinese.

Such a tricameral legislature, its proponents believe, would better ensure that political decisions were informed by a more educated and enlightened outlook, instead of the rank populism of Western-style elected factions. It’s intriguing to contemplate China evolving into some sort of innovative democratic experiment, combining tricameralism with all the high-tech features of professor Fishkin’s deliberative democracy methods to mold a new type of political accountability as well as separation of powers.

In contemplating these possibilities, Daniel Bell, a Canadian-born professor of political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who met with me over green tea one day, says China may be groping toward “a political model that works better than Western-style democracy.” Without losing a beat, he predicts that the Chinese Communist Party will one day be called the Chinese Confucian Party, perhaps governing via a hybrid meritocracy-democracy.

So perhaps some bold but slow-forming experiment in representative and meritocratic democracy is now on the table, yet numerous cynics and Western sinologists continue to say, “Don’t hold your breath.” China’s rampant corruption, as well as the deep involvement of the military in running businesses and controlling everything from major amounts of real estate to dealerships in ancient art and antiquities, points to the illusion of this wishful thinking, they say.

But the cynics usually don’t factor in a new, younger generation of people and leaders who are developing different sensibilities than their forebears. One female graduate student I met at Beijing University displayed an uncommon affection for electoral democracy and the exercise of free speech rights. This student had spent a year studying at the University of Washington (a surprising number of the Chinese elite have spent time at American and European universities). When the Dalai Lama came to Seattle, she and some other Chinese students decided to protest. “Heavens, why would you protest the Dalai Lama?” I asked her. She looked at me with disbelief. “Why, the Dalai Lama is a king,” she said, as if stating the blatantly obvious. “He’s a monarch, totally contrary to any notions of democracy. He hasn’t been elected to anything.”

These Chinese students filled out their protest permits at Seattle police headquarters, and were shocked when their permit was denied. “Here we are in America, the land of free speech, trying to exercise our so-called constitutional rights, and they tell us we can’t protest when this king shows up claiming to speak for people in the Chinese province of Tibet.” I chuckled at another Chinese belief—the Dalai Lama as an unelected king—aiming to overturn conventional wisdom. 

If democracy is good for Tibet, why not for all of China? That’s a small ideological leap to make. Perhaps if their belief in democracy is strong and ecumenical enough, the youths of China will find a way to take their country down a path toward greater popular sovereignty. It remains to be seen how much of the “new China” will continue to emerge as this drama plays out, but it’s very likely that any Chinese democracy will have its own unique characteristics; it is unlikely to be an exact copy of the Western model, and it will take its time arriving. China is both a modern state and an ancient civilization that, after all, has shown an almost pathological degree of patience and forbearance. This is the nation where Zhou Enlai, the legendary prime minister under Mao, was asked what he thought of the French Revolution and is said to have replied: “It’s too early to tell.”

The same could be said for the prospects of representative democracy in China.

Steven Hill is author of the recently published “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age,” He has been blogging about his recent 12-nation, 20-city speaking tour in Europe at

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 16, 2010 at 10:16 am Link to this comment

The 1998 movie “Elizabeth” about the royal hegemony gives great insight into these elites and how we haven’t a say in whether a country goes to war or not.

What I didn’t like too much was the spiritual suggestions that God favored England over Spain… which is hilarious… for BOTH were led be VILE and greedy/lost folks it seems… yet the ‘fairy tale’ story of ‘justice’ and ‘liberty’ juxtaposed against a backdrop of lies and killings.

Yet, very insightful when considering how the elites communicate with one another and lead their people into conflict over the most mundane of reasons… just to keep control and power in their hands… at the expense and cost of the common livelihoods.


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By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 16, 2010 at 9:37 am Link to this comment

I think you’re right patriot10101

I remember visiting China few year back and recognizing the similarities between their ‘old’ fiat currency, for it resembled the FED note.

I was dumbfounded, for at the time I ‘believed’ they were a different culture and political system altogether, yet they too have a central bank which produces fiats.

The elites of EVERY country is on the same page with other elites- Keep the commons down.

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By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 15, 2010 at 11:40 pm Link to this comment

What is interesting is that ‘the people’ of that country called China are doing something called resembling what we believe was had here, or is being done here…. but they too believe their votes are without hierarchical and class bias.  For their handlers will do what they will with what they have to work with, just like over here.

Now, if this type of ‘representative _________’ ( I don’t want to add the pigeon-holing term ) can be called something rather better defined like ‘self-representing’ political type of governance, maybe the idea of politics can be turned on its head.

In Venezuela, the lower and poorer classes learned to read their Constitution and what it meant, and procedure according to their writ was demanded by the informed and educated public.

Also, what if the idea of ‘president’ and that whole upper crusty and stuffy pedigreed be replaced by a body of regional representatives from non-money-bred origins ( I guess I"m referring to dissolving the federal government along with its alphabet agencies AND outlawing lobbying by mega corporations / reforming corporate charters to be brought back to public service centered intentions and not solely profit at any expense ).

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By lolwut, December 15, 2010 at 10:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The writer of this article is flatfooted by a ridiculous straw man from the Chinese Ph.D.? No wonder our country is in trouble.

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By Paco, December 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment
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The elevation of George W. Bush to the office of President does not represent a failure of democracy, it represents a failed democracy in which the electoral process was corrupted and defeated. 

Our electoral process has been contaminated by money and the consequent rise of moneyed power-brokers who determine who can run and who the winner will owe debts to.  In the first election of George W. Bush, the popular will of the voters was defeated by an activist Supreme Court that saw fit to over-rule the will of the voters and install the president they preferred.  In the following election, it was the rigging of the electoral count in Ohio that kept Bush in office. 

Democracy had nothing whatever to do with the presidency of George W. Bush.

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By ProfBob, December 15, 2010 at 10:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We seem to assume that democracy is the best form of government. It might well be true if people were educated. But clearly in America they are not.
Second, we need to define what democracy really is. Is it merely one person one vote. Does it include free enterprise? Does it include government by lobbyists? Should earmarks be allowed? are we really talking about a republican form of government? How much free speech and gun ownership should be allowed in the real democracy?
  Third, if Plato’s philosopher kings are an ideal to be emulated, is not China’s government closer to the utopian ideals?
  Fourth, what is the function of government? Is it to aid the people in being happy, in being productive, in gaining pleasure or riches in any way they can?
  These are some questions that need to be answered. But based on the last 30 years of progress, it seems that China has progressed much more under their political system and has the United States.

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