George W. Bush, it turns out, was not only a challenged president but also a lousy advertisement for the importance of democracy. It’s 2008, the Beijing Olympics have just ended, and I’m sitting across a cafe table from professor Pan Wei, a rising academic and ideological star in China who teaches at Beijing University. We are debating the merits of representative democracy, with the U.S. presidential election only two months away. Students take up the surrounding tables — the lucky ones in China who get to go to university at all, since for the average Chinese family it is impossibly expensive. If wide access to education is considered an underpinning of a democracy, China has a long way to go. But Pan Wei, who obtained his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1996, dismisses such talk, ranting in favor of a Confucian-values meritocracy over a democracy.

“Look at your own democracy, look at what your elections produced,” he says, practically gloating. “George Bush. In China, our president and premier, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiaboa, are highly educated men. Both are engineers, men of science. Professionals, highly competent. Your president is a frat boy with a silver spoon. How can you seriously argue that elections and democracy are superior?”

I have to admit I was caught flat-footed by his taunting comment. China is like that sometimes. It can challenge conventional notions. George W. Bush has become their ready-made response to that Winston Churchill adage that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”

But others within China hold a different view. Political scientist Yu Keping is one of China’s leading proponents of electoral democracy. He is not some wild-eyed radical. Indeed, he is an insider in the Chinese political establishment and is said to have the ear of President Hu Jintao. Author of a prominent book called “Democracy Is a Good Thing,” Yu sees some type of electoral democracy as central to China’s future.

All my other interviews with Chinese leaders and academics had been low-key affairs in a cafe or an academic office. But when I met with Yu, I was ushered into what appeared to be an official state meeting, the two major participants (myself and Yu) sitting side by side on big puffy chairs like Nixon and Mao in photos from 1972. His assistant and another researcher sat to his left, my “assistant” (i.e. my domestic partner) to my right, the tea being served between us by a little Chinese woman, with cameras snapping and video cameras whirring.

“Democracy is good not only for individuals or certain officials but also for the entire nation and for all the people of China,” Yu said with great solemnity. I felt a shiver as I considered that I was perhaps sitting in the presence of China’s Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. “Political democracy is the trend of history, and it is inevitable for all nations of the world to move toward democracy.”

Yu went on to talk about how, in his view, electoral democracy forces officials into the constructive practice of gaining the endorsement and support of the majority of people, a familiar Western theme. He also believes that electoral democracy can act as a check against abuses of power by those officials, a particularly local concern given China’s notorious plague of corruption. While he talked of China having “unique characteristics” — often the Chinese way to tell Western scolds to bug off — he was unequivocal in saying that, for China, “democracy is not only a good thing but an essential one.” And, he pointed out, his view has been seconded by the top political leaders.

Indeed, in September of this year, President Hu gave a speech in Hong Kong in which he called for new thinking, saying, “There is a need to expand socialist democracy … hold democratic elections according to the law; have democratic decision-making, democratic management as well as democratic supervision; safeguard people’s right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise.” His remarks elaborated on comments from Premier Wen Jiaboa, delivered the previous month in Shenzhen, the coastal free enterprise zone at the forefront of China’s economic revolution. Wen said that without reforms of the political system, gains from reforms of the economic system would go down the drain, and the objective of modernization would not be achieved. Political reform is necessary, said Wen, to sustain the nation’s breakneck economic growth, including opportunities for citizens to criticize and monitor the government for a fair and just society.

Wen’s remarks led to speculation that Shenzhen, which set the pace for China’s economic development, could soon become a “special political zone.” James Sung Lap-kung, an administrator at Hong Kong’s City University, was quoted in The Standard as saying that the Chinese leadership is sending a signal. “Shenzhen has long set the pace in administrative reform,” he said, “so a next step could be direct elections for the chiefs of the Special Economic Zone’s six districts, and Shenzhen will probably be the first city to elect its mayor.”

But even with such top-level endorsement the prospects of democracy remain unclear, since the two leaders’ remarks raised a lot of eyebrows among the old guard and hard-liners in Beijing. The public remarks of the premier are usually accorded prominent coverage in official media, but state media either played down or avoided reporting on Wen’s calls for political reforms.Stirrings of electoral democracy at the local level

While professor Yu Keping’s democratic theory for China sounds bold, his practice has been decidedly pragmatic and incremental. He is shrewd about the anti-democratic forces within the Communist Party — of which he is a prominent member — as well as the weight of China’s long authoritarian history. So he has promoted the idea of a “democracy cascade” in which elections gradually work their way up to the national level from successful local efforts. This strategy has led to some modestly impressive results.

Mostly unknown to Americans is the fact that China has begun widespread experiments with electoral democracy at the local level. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, China probably holds more elections than any other nation in the world. Under the Organic Law of the Village Committees, all of China’s approximately 1 million villages — home to some 600 million voters — hold elections every three years for local village committees.

The village councils have powers to decide on such vital issues as land and property rights, which are central to local development and the source of increasing tensions (as people are moved off their land, often involuntarily, for the alleged good of China — and all too often to line local officials’ pockets). The central government mandated direct village elections in 1988, soon after the dismantling of the collectivist commune system. The aim then and now was to relieve social and political tensions and help maintain order at a time of unprecedented economic reform. In the past few years that need has become more urgent than ever as more than 70,000 protests and other outbreaks of social unrest have been reported annually in villages across China, oftentimes in reaction to land grabs by local officials.

But Pan Wei and other critics scoff at these local elections and question whether they are genuinely democratic. Election committees controlled by the Chinese Communist Party often play a significant role as gatekeepers, in many villages deciding most of the candidate nominations. Many of the local elections are rigged, they say, lacking a secret ballot, meaningful oversight or independent review. Vote totals and percentages are not consistently disclosed. Moreover, according to Pan, the premature introduction of democracy actually could undermine the rule of law and modernization, and he points to examples like Rwanda and Angola.

“Democracy in China, at this particular time, would lead to chaos,” he says. He sees little electoral future in the near term, and believes that a better model for China is evident in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, which have developed successfully without robust representative democracy.

But Robert Benewick, a research professor at the University of Sussex who has studied local elections closely, says that village elections have been growing more competitive, with the use of the secret ballot becoming more common. For those elections where there has been real competition, with bona fide independent candidates running, researchers claim to have evidence of positive impacts.

Yao Yang is a soft-spoken economist who met with me over lunch one day in Shanghai to discuss his research about the impact of local elections. In a study that looked at 40 villages over 16 years, his research found that the introduction of elections had increased spending on public services by 20 percent, while reducing by 18 percent the spending for “administrative costs,” which is bureaucratic-speak for corruption. I asked Yao about Pan Wei’s skepticism, but he only smiled shyly and said, “People can say whatever they want. But I have the data to prove it [my thesis].”

Despite the critics, the Chinese leadership seems impressed with the potential of electoral democracy. Premier Wen has suggested that the village elections might be extended to the next level of government — township administrations — sometime over the next few years.

China’s modest experiments with local electoral democracy have been supplemented with exercises in what is known as “deliberative democracy.” These take the shape of New England-style town hall meetings, review hearings and public consultation exercises. China hired Stanford University professor James Fishkin to draft a randomly selected, scientifically representative sample of citizens from the city of Zeguo to participate in a process so they could decide how their city should spend a $6 million public works budget. Fishkin’s signature “deliberative polling” method employs technologies such as the Internet, keypad polling devices, handheld computers and more to convene representative assemblies of average citizens for several days.

The Zeguo exercise was considered hugely successful and has been replicated in other places. Interestingly, it jibes well with the governance vision of Pan Wei and others who want to see China develop into a sort of high-tech “consultative dictatorship” in which the leaders use various technological means to keep their fingers on the pulse of the people, a kind of 21st century version of Plato’s philosopher-kings ruling for the good of society.

Given China’s remarkable development over the past three decades under a succession of fairly competent leaders, this vision does not seem far-fetched, at least in the short term. But in the longer term, critics of this approach see the Chinese dictatorship — however consultative — choking off the creativity and entrepreneurial flourishing that is necessary to allow the growth of China’s business sector and macro-development. So Yu Keping and others have been nudging democracy forward in another direction that some think may have the most long-term promise — internal party democracy within the ruling Communist Party itself. The idea would be to rejuvenate the party from the bottom up by holding competitive elections for all party posts. This already has begun at lower levels, with votes for provincial and national party congresses showing electoral slates with 15 to 30 percent more candidates than positions.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

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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