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Democracy: Made in China
Posted on Dec 15, 2010
By Steven Hill
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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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,” www.EuropesPromise.org. He has been blogging about his recent 12-nation, 20-city speaking tour in Europe at www.steven-hill.com.
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