Where is Chinese Democracy Going?

In 1891, the French artist Paul Gauguin sailed to Tahiti, which he thought would be his next artistic destination. Six years later, a masterpiece exploring human beings’ socio-biological evolution was created. The painting’s title, which also reflected Gauguin’s own fundamental catechism, was Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

The painting symbolized the culmination of Gauguin’s thoughts, but he barely realized that the serial questions asked by him have now been widely used to study a country’s political development. After July 1, 2016, the day the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its 95th birthday, more and more people have started vociferously asking this question: Where is Chinese democracy going?

China has proven to be no “paper tiger.” It is a Leviathan.

China is a special political force in the world. Since Deng Xiaoping’s second generation of leadership, the country has become capitalist in economy and communist in ideology. The long lasting continuity of this mixed polity has posed a challenge to the popular argument that liberal democracy constitutes a universal evolutionary model. On the one hand, the CCP is unwilling to forgo the traditional despotism inherited from dynastic China beginning in the Qin Dynasty, and remains reluctant to allow other democratic parties to participate in the domestic politics.  On the other, Chinese leaders understand the world’s trend toward modernity is to establish the market economy, so “reform and opening” is necessary. Guess what? So far so good; under CCP’s rule, China has proven to be no “paper tiger.” It is a Leviathan.

It took China more than thirty years to achieve this remarkable status. During China’s lengthy and rocky development, however, it never failed to receive harsh criticisms from outside the Great Wall. Critics questioned China’s development model, and its path to modernity has met unprecedented incredulity. Ironically, the stronger China is, the more attacks the country may confront.

Critics support various democratic movements within China. They argue the ideal way to modernize the country, both politically and economically, is through the adoption of the liberal democratic model. Could that be an alternative for Chinese leaders? Perhaps no, and Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay can provide a justifiable reason. In his book, Fukuyama upholds the idea that liberal democracy will come to an end, and in the United States, for example, some dark clouds have already appeared. The U.S. has excessive checks and balances, and when this situation is combined with social mistrust and polarization, the government becomes increasingly inefficient. This may be the theoretical foundation underlying the U.S. government shutdown in 2013, and why Congress may be unable to implement the new immigration goals of either President Clinton or President Trump. In addition, the American political system is known for the enormous ability of different interest groups to impede the government from undertaking policy actions which they find threatening. Consequently, it is hard for the government to accomplish something. Yes, the triumph of liberal freedom is far from assured and apparently, the U.S. is no exception.

Urging China to adopt the decaying total-liberal-democracy model is groundless, but that is not to say the “Chinese style democracy” is flawless, and China should maintain the status quo. The size of the middle class group in China is expanding these days. Middle class people, who are largely well-educated, are now beginning to demand the rule of law to protect their properties, as well as broader political participation to safeguard their social standing for moral reasons. But the thing is, the Chinese authoritarian and bureaucratic polity is treating them as disobedient kids. The protest in Wukan, Guangdong Province can exemplify this phenomenon. Without connections and backgrounds, they will always stay at the edge of the Chinese political periphery. The American political sociologist Barrington Moore’s famous argument “No bourgeois, no democracy” still remains highly insightful today. The middle class’s voices need to be heard if China wants to adhere to its socialist path toward democracy.

Furthermore, China has a strong party, which sometimes wields its authoritative power without restraint. It is understandable that in the absence of free media and the necessary checks and balances, there can be severe corruption, cronyism and nepotism problems. Undoubtedly, China will continue paying for penalties by itself if the situation is not changed.

It is true that the CCP’s formidable governance and its spreading tentacles will inevitably remind people of the tragic year 1989, during which bourgeois liberalism was burgeoning, and the emerging middle class were calling for an overhaul of the country’s polity. Back in those days, the Chinese people looked forward to a westernized democratic China, but the bloody result signaled to them that China was not yet ready for liberal democracy.

It is a lesson Chinese people need to learn and also bear in mind; a swift transition to Western democracy is impractical, and is sometimes painful. Rather, the CCP needs to stick to the currently stable socialist democratic path, resist the temptation of liberal democracy, and focus on its own trajectory without being distracted by the endless “noises-from-outside-about-democracy.” Meanwhile, it should allow peoples’ livelihood to flourish so as to materially prepare for the further embracing of democracy, and shore-up the legal system across the country. For local Chinese, they need to be “confident in the chosen path, confident in the political system, and confident in the guiding theories.” If so, China can be expected to finally arrive at the terminal of the “democratic nirvana,” a place China is now heading to.


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Chutian Zhou

Chutian Zhou has a multidisciplinary background in journalism, finance, political science, and data science. He graduated from the School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), UC San Diego in 2017, and later obtained his second Master’s degree from Columbia University with a focus on quantitative social science. His thesis examines non-violent tactics used by the Chinese leader to pre-empt domestic political challenges. At GPS, Chutian's interests lie in Chinese elite politics, cross-strait relations, and methodology. He is now based in New York working as a data analyst.

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