Democracy: Made in China

Published on December 15, 2010   ·   No Comments

By Steven Hill

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.


photo:AP / Greg Baker

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