Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Prospects for Democracy in China

Long Time Coming: The Prospects for Democracy in China
John L. Thornton, Foreign Affairs , January/February 2008

Summary: Is China democratizing? The country's leaders do not think of democracy as people in the West generally do, but they are increasingly backing local elections, judicial independence, and oversight of Chinese Communist Party officials. How far China's liberalization will ultimately go and what Chinese politics will look like when it stops are open questions.

JOHN L. THORNTON is a Professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management and its School of Public Policy and Management, in Beijing, and Director of the university's Global Leadership Program. He is also Chair of the Board of the Brookings Institution.

China's leaders have held out the promise of some form of democracy to the people of China for nearly a century. After China's last dynasty, the Qing, collapsed in 1911, Sun Yat-sen suggested a three-year period of temporary military rule, followed by a six-year phase of "political tutelage," to guide the country's transition into a full constitutional republic. In 1940, Mao Zedong offered followers something he called "new democracy," in which leadership by the Communist Party would ensure the "democratic dictatorship" of the revolutionary groups over class enemies. And Deng Xiaoping, leading the country out of the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, declared that democracy was a "major condition for emancipating the mind."

When they used the term "democracy," Sun, Mao, and Deng each had something quite different in mind. Sun's definition -- which envisioned a constitutional government with universal suffrage, free elections, and separation of powers -- came closest to a definition recognizable in the West. Through their deeds, Mao and Deng showed that despite their words, such concepts held little importance for them. Still, the three agreed that democracy was not an end in itself but rather a mechanism for achieving China's real purpose of becoming a country that could no longer be bullied by outside powers.

Democracy ultimately foundered under all three leaders. When Sun died, in 1925, warlordism and disunity still engulfed many parts of China. In his time, Mao showed less interest in democracy than in class struggle, mass movements, continuous revolution, and keeping his opponents off balance. And Deng demonstrated on a number of occasions -- most dramatically in suppressing the Tiananmen protests of 1989 -- that he would not let popular democratic movements overtake party rule or upset his plan for national development.

Today, of course, China is not a democracy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a monopoly on political power, and the country lacks freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and other fundamental attributes of a pluralistic liberal system. Many inside and outside China remain skeptical about the prospects for political reform. Yet much is happening -- in the government, in the CCP, in the economy, and in society at large -- that could change how Chinese think about democracy and shape China's political future.

Both in public and in private, China's leaders are once again talking about democracy, this time with increasing frequency and detail. (This article is based on conversations held over the past 14 months with a broad range of Chinese, including members of the CCP's Central Committee -- the group of China's top 370 leaders -- senior government officials, scholars, judges, lawyers, journalists, and leaders of nongovernmental organizations.) President Hu Jintao has called democracy "the common pursuit of mankind." During his 2006 visit to the United States, Hu went out of his way to broach the subject at each stop. And Premier Wen Jiabao, in his address to the 2007 National People's Congress, devoted to democracy and the rule of law more than twice the attention he had in any previous such speech. "Developing democracy and improving the legal system," Wen declared, "are basic requirements of the socialist system."

As with earlier leaders, what the present generation has in mind differs from the definition used in the West. Top officials stress that the CCP's leadership must be preserved. Although they see a role for elections, particularly at the local level, they assert that a "deliberative" form of politics that allows individual citizens and groups to add their views to the decision-making process is more appropriate for China than open, multiparty competition for national power. They often mention meritocracy, including the use of examinations to test candidates' competence for office, reflecting an age-old Chinese belief that the government should be made up of the country's most talented. Chinese leaders do not welcome the latitude of freedom of speech, press, or assembly taken for granted in the West. They say they support the orderly expansion of these rights but focus more on the group and social harmony -- what they consider the common good.

Below the top tier of leaders (who usually speak from a common script), Chinese officials differ on whether "guided democracy" is where China's current political evolution will end or is a way station en route to a more standard liberal democratic model. East Asia provides examples of several possibilities: the decades-long domination of politics by the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, the prosperity with limited press freedom of Singapore, and the freewheeling multiparty system of South Korea. China might follow one of these paths, some speculate, or blaze its own.

In a meeting in late 2006 with a delegation from the Brookings Institution (of which I was a member), Premier Wen was asked what he and other Chinese leaders meant by the word "democracy," what form democracy was likely to take in China, and over what time frame. "When we talk about democracy," Wen replied, "we usually refer to three key components: elections, judicial independence, and supervision based on checks and balances." Regarding the first, he could foresee direct and indirect elections expanding gradually from villages to towns, counties, and even provinces. He did not mention developments beyond this, however. As for China's judicial system, which is riddled with corruption, Wen stressed the need for reform to assure the judiciary's "dignity, justice, and independence." And he explained that "supervision" -- a Chinese term for ensuring effective oversight -- was necessary to restrain abuses of official power. He called for checks and balances within the CCP and for greater official accountability to the public. The media and China's nearly 200 million Internet users should also participate "as appropriate" in the supervision of the government's work, he observed. Wen's bottom line: "We have to move toward democracy. We have many problems, but we know the direction in which we are going."


Given the gap between the democratic aspirations professed by leaders such as Hu and Wen and the skepticism that their words elicit in the West, a better understanding is needed of where exactly the process of democratization stands in China today. Chinese citizens do not have the right to choose their national leaders, but for more than a decade, peasants across the country have held ballots to elect village chiefs. What is happening in the vast space between the farm and Zhongnanhai, the CCP's leadership compound in Beijing? Some answers can be gleaned by examining the three pillars of Wen's definition: elections, judicial independence, and supervision.

The Chinese constitution calls for a combination of direct and indirect polls to choose government leaders. In practice, competitive popular elections occur widely only in the country's 700,000 villages. With over 700 million farmers living in these villages, this is not an insignificant phenomenon, but the details tell a complex and at times contradictory story.

The original impulse behind village elections, which began in the early 1980s, was to promote competent local leaders who would grow the rural economy and implement national priorities such as the one-child policy. With the abandonment of collectivization at the end of the Cultural Revolution, a power vacuum emerged in the countryside. By most accounts, at first elections enjoyed the central government's active support and were generally conducted fairly. But in the early 1990s, authorities were reportedly taken aback by figures showing that only 40 percent of elected village chiefs were CCP members. Beijing eventually instructed local officials to ensure that the "leading role" of the Communist Party was maintained. Today, the majority of village chiefs are again party members, although the size of that majority can vary widely by region. Over 90 percent of the village heads in the provinces of Guangdong, Hubei, and Shandong belong to the party, but the figure drops to 60-70 percent in Fujian and Zhejiang. And even these figures overstate the actual percentage of village chiefs who were elected as party members: when nonparty candidates are elected, the CCP nearly always recruits them so as to ensure that it remains in charge while giving farmers the leaders they want.


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