September 05, 2005

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Chinese Democracy On the Way

In the 1980s, Communist reformers were forced by hardline leftists to explain that China's economic reforms were not merely paving the way for 'peaceful evolution', as they called political liberalization from economic forces. They were forced to spit on those words, and two decades ago they were as awful to the ear in China as the word 'liberal' is in the United States today. In the 1980s, after all, outside Western commentators were constantly commenting on how China put economic reform before political reform, while the former USSR did it the other way round. Reformers were therefore put on the defensive.

But economic reform creates both a momentum and a logic all its own. The CCP has unleashed market forces that have made the Chinese economy go very fast; but now, the very speed of the economy means they cannot suddenly pull on the brakes or jump off without very grave consequences. Wealth gives people belief in the dignity of their own existence; and with a middle class, as I've said many times, comes demand for a greater say in government.

Today, according to Reuters, Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, has made official what we've all suspected; that democracy in China is just a matter of time. His words:

"China will press ahead with its development of democratic politics, that is reconstruction, in an unswerving way, including direct elections," Wen told a news conference ahead of an EU-China summit.

"If the Chinese people can manage a village, I believe in several years they can manage a township. That would be an evolving system."

China has introduced direct elections for village chiefs in more than 660,000 villages, and many of those elected are not party members. But it has dragged its feet on expanding suffrage for the election of officials at higher levels.

The ramifications of this statement, though, are immense. It means China has finally admitted that 1) democratic government is ultimately the best form of government for social stability, given a mature polity; and 2) that forces within China are acting as inexorable agents of change that are forcing both this admission and the evolution itself to a more democratic, representative form of government. Why do I make conclusion 2)? Because it seems that when a party such as the CCP has a monopoly on power, that it would not necessarily want to cede control of that power to competitive elections.

Of course, this is going to start off very slowly and small, and I'm sure opposing candidates at the district level are not going to be allowed to run on anti-CCP platforms. They likely need to do this though, given how poor governance has become at the local level, and the need to clean up the corruption of officials that currently have no process by which locals could evict them.

Unfortunately, as incomplete democacies in developing polities with corruption problems have shown, democracy is no panacea for rooting out graft and greed in public office. But it may mean local people at least feel they have a mechanism for 'throwing out the bums' and punishing officials with poor track records, making them less likely in the short term to demand more dramatic reforms.

Also, the article cites Hong Kong as evidence to Beijing that democracy doesn't really work that well. But the problem is, since Hong Kong is not a full democracy, many people of ability shy away from politics as it seems laden with unspoken taboos and glass ceilings, making it a flawed model for China.

All of this is speculation at present though, and full democracy many years in the uncertain future. For now, we'll just have to see what happens with this brave new policy commitment by Beijing.

posted by HK Dave on 09.05.05 at 11:08 PM in the


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short monday links
Excerpt: It begins... Hong Kong's Disneyland has started dress rehearsals, Little Cart Noodles takes an advanced look. (via Caleb): Chris at Ordinary Gweillo looks at an SCMP report on the park.: Hongkongers can't get enough of taking photographs. But they don't
Weblog: asiapundit
Tracked: September 6, 2005 01:15 AM

China' democracy reform
Excerpt: Note that the media has been reminding us that Wen Jiabao stood right next to Zhao Ziyang on Tiananmen Square, May 18, 1989.
Weblog: Sun Bin
Tracked: September 6, 2005 01:27 AM

Building Ties
Excerpt: The EU has reached an agreement with China concerning China's export of textiles, a move which is deemed to be progress in relations between the two: At stake in the marathon negotiations was how the two sides would revise a...
Weblog: Phatic Communion
Tracked: September 6, 2005 05:15 AM

Gradualism and "Democracy with Chinese Characteristics"
Excerpt: "Big changes usually happen through a series of smaller steps, and big decisions are taken only after intermediate steps are tried and found wanting."
Weblog: sun bin
Tracked: September 6, 2005 10:26 AM

Excerpt: A recent speech by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has left both Asiapundit and Peking Duck wondering if we will soon be able to write the word democracy without the need to use trick letters to get around the firewall.
Weblog: MeiZhongTai
Tracked: September 6, 2005 12:21 PM


Dave, I really share your hope.
But what I'll never understand is how is possible that so many people are still so inclined to trust the official statements of a communist despot whose words are systematically disproved by everyday reality.
If democracy arrives (and will arrive), it will be in spite of CCP, not because of.



posted by: Enzo on 09.05.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]

Hi Enzo, the thing is, though, that five years ago they'd never have even dreamed of saying that. That alone is a change worth celebrating.

posted by: HK Dave on 09.06.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]


Great post. It may takes some time but I think what they realize what is the right thing to do.

(note the media often remind us that Wen was beside Zhao ziyang on TAM, May18, 1989)

posted by: sun bin on 09.06.05 at 01:16 AM [permalink]

Quite right HKDave that 5 years ago under JZM they wouldn't have said that, but of course fifteen to twenty years ago under first HYB and then ZZY, they were saying exactly the same things as Wen said this past week. Its back to the future time in the PRC. Or perhaps more accurately, picking up where those leaders were at before they were ousted.

posted by: dylan on 09.06.05 at 11:38 AM [permalink]

Singapore-based Zaobao said Chinese official media did not report Wen's statement......

posted by: Letters from China on 09.06.05 at 02:02 PM [permalink]

Dylan, points well made. It is really frustrating to see how political leaders in China never really learn from history. The Empress Dowager Cixi crushed the "Hundred Day Reform" and forced Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao into exile. A decade later, she adopted most of the measures that Kang and Liang intended to introduce in a desparate attempt to resurrect the Qing Empire from her inevitable fate of destruction. As yet, it was too little too late. I hope that the PRC government today under the leadership of Wen and hu are not reenacting the same old sad drama again.

posted by: Fat Cat on 09.06.05 at 02:49 PM [permalink]

I realize there are plenty of grounds for pessimism, but it does seem as though these statements have gone further even than those made by the CCP officials in the 1980s, at least during non-crisis periods. I would also argue that the situation today in China is far better than that faced by the Chinese leadership, such as it was, under the rudderless helmswomanship of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi. In fact, you may want to refer to my own blog today for commentary on that particular lady and the anniversary of the American-led 'Open Door' policy in China.

posted by: HK Dave on 09.06.05 at 05:42 PM [permalink]

Amazing stuff, good find, Dave. I agree that even mentioning this is a big step forward. However I can also understand the worry that this is merely paying lip service to the idea of democracy. Is it merely jockeying in some hidden power play between "reformers" and "conservatives". The irony is China's leadership debates these things, if at all, behind close doors.

The implications of Wen's statement would make interesting work for the CCP theorists. If democracy is inevitable, what of the CCP's place within it? Are we talking Egypt style democracy or Western?

posted by: Simon on 09.06.05 at 06:59 PM [permalink]

In other words, not all democracies are equal. It's what democracy translates to on the ground that matters. It's not just voting. It's rule of law, corruption free Government, free press and speech, working and honest courts. That's likely not what Wen has in mind.

posted by: Simon on 09.06.05 at 07:00 PM [permalink]

Simon, I quite agree with you, I am sure that democracy as we know it in the West is not what Wen has in mind, any more than the 2% revaluation was what the US wanted.:) I'm sure the democracy he is considering is going to be more limited than Singapore's, for example, and is not going to extend to positions at the highest level in the Central government anytime soon.

But clearly the leadership is reacting to real or perceived pressure to reform governance, and a willingness to consider what is a radical solution internally for appointing government at a local level. How far or how fast it goes, it is hard to say, but the fact that they are re-considering a solution that was anathema to them until very recently is remarkable.

It is about placing the ability to replace useless, venal and corrupt local officials in the hands of the local population. In a best case scenario, I am sure, for the CCP, it will serve as a model for how to reform government at a higher level, and also serve as a recruiting engine for the party. In a worst case scenario, they at least will manage to deflect blame for bad local government from Beijing.

I think it is important to remember that democracy with a universal franchise took over a century to establish itself in the United States and in most Western countries - Switzerland only gave women the vote a generation ago. These things take time, and democracy and the values that make it successful - civic participation, belief in equality, civil rights and in using political participation to advance one's own interests - does not come overnight. This is why I believe this ever-so-slight crack of light in the doorway should be applauded and supported rather than dismissed cynically.

posted by: HK Dave on 09.07.05 at 09:49 AM [permalink]

I don't cynically dismiss it at all. I merely point out that Wen and Hu's recent statements have a lineage that goes back decades, and are not some sudden "discovery" that changes everything. Maybe they will succeed where HYB and ZZY failed, lets hope they do.

posted by: dylabn on 09.07.05 at 11:12 AM [permalink]

Sorry Dylan, I was in a hurry and used the word 'cynically' instead of 'skeptically'. Statements of liberalism should rightly be taken with a grain of salt when made in a foreign language at a meeting outside of the country. But given how carefully Chinese senior party officials word their statements, I think that these words nevertheless provide some grounds for optimism after a lapse of almost two decades and after 1989 was thought to have definitively ended any progress on this front.

But yes, we should not be putting on the party hats yet, on that I think we both agree.:)

posted by: HK Dave on 09.07.05 at 11:43 AM [permalink]

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