“Chinese democracy is people’s democracy while the US is money democracy,” said Hua Chunying, China’s foreign affairs spokesperson, in the wake of America’s pull-out from Afghanistan last month, adding, “The Chinese enjoy a whole-process democracy, while Americans enjoy ballot-box democracy every four years.” The US withdrawal has been a propaganda gift to the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), providing them with an opening to further propagate their long-nurtured criticisms of liberal democracy and their claim that the People’s Republic of China will soon replace the US as the world’s dominant power. For example, the Chinese foreign ministry declared that “the Afghan situation again proves democracy has no set model; the standard is whether it meets people’s needs and expectations, not solely what the US and its allies say.” The implication is that there are many kinds of democracy, and that what the CCP calls Chinese democracy is somehow a more appropriate political model for China than the liberal alternatives. The CCP have been making these claims since around 2017, in an effort to strengthen the ideological legitimacy of China’s political system in the eyes of the world.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that democracy can mean different things to different people. In China, the word tends to be understood as describing a government that is responsive to the people’s needs, rather than referencing the existence of mechanisms of accountability such as elections. Yet many Chinese people throughout modern history have been immensely attracted to aspects of liberal democracy, such as collective self-government and individual freedoms, and their attachment to these ideas has often surfaced in powerful forms—for example in 1989. The current triumphalism of the CCP democracy narrative in the context of America’s evacuation from Afghanistan suggests that the party’s critique of liberal democracy may stem from fears that China will see a re-emergence of calls for an end to the party’s monopoly on political power.
Democracy in History
Historically, most western political thinkers have assumed that Chinese political thinkers see democracy and liberal rights as inconsistent with the Confucian tradition of benevolent authoritarianism. Andrew J. Nathan has challenged this assumption, describing how certain individual civil rights (such as freedom of speech, assembly and publication) and mechanisms of democratic self-government (such as popular sovereignty elections and recall elections) were written into many of the 11 constitutions that China has successively adopted since 1908: the Qing’s Principles (1908), the Guomindang’s Tutelage Constitution (1931) and all constitutions adopted since the 1949 Communist revolution (1954, 1975, 1978)—including the one that is currently in effect (1982). Whilst these constitutions have either been implemented only briefly, or not fully adhered to by the governments that promulgated them, Nathan argues that they clearly represented an ideal to which the constitutional drafters aspired—a goal that they hoped would be realised.
The dictatorship that the CCP imposed in 1949 did not adhere to the political model that it had promised during its campaign to oust the Kuomintang (KMT). For example, in Mao Zedong’s On Coalition Government (1945), he promises to put an end to “one-party dictatorship” and denies rumours that the Chinese Communist Party intends to impose a Soviet-style dictatorship of the proletariat:
Some people are suspicious and think that once in power the Communist Party will follow Russia’s example and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and a one-party system. Our answer is that … our system of New Democracy is different in principle from a socialist state under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Mao’s On Coalition Government also includes promises to recognise the legal status of all political parties and to revoke all “reactionary laws aimed at suppressing the people’s freedom,” including laws suppressing freedom of the press and of speech, assembly and association. When instead, after winning power, the CCP jettisoned this broadly liberal political programme and imposed a one-party dictatorship, it initially encountered strong opposition from large subgroups of the population, especially in coastal towns and among the intelligentsia. (This opposition was suppressed with extreme violence once the Korean War began in 1950.)
Throughout the Maoist period (1949–1976), the CCP was committed to what it called “revolutionary struggle” aimed at remaking Chinese society in the image of Mao’s communist utopia. However, after experiencing atrocities like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese people were broken and exhausted, and by the time Mao died in 1976, most wanted an end to revolution. In 1978, the CCP’s leaders began repudiating Mao’s social and political policies and initiating debate about economic reform. In response, ordinary people started to put so-called big character posters on a wall to the west of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, describing the suffering that they and their families had endured as a result of the Cultural Revolution. The CCP initially tolerated what became known as the “Democracy Wall”: Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping told an American reporter that “the Democracy Wall is good,” and remarked to a socialist leader visiting from Japan that “the masses putting up big-character posters is a normal thing, and shows the stable situation in our country.” However, once protestors moved beyond criticising the past and began to call for democratic reforms in the present, the CCP shut the movement down: Deng declared that certain topics—which he called the “four cardinal principles” of China’s political system—were off-limits to public debate: the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat (later rebranded as the people’s democratic dictatorship), the leadership of the CCP and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought. His message was clear: the CCP’s economic reforms must not be taken as an invitation to question its monopoly on power.
The suppression of public debate did not, of course, assuage popular discontent. In the years that followed, there were public protests against problems like inflation, declining standards of living and party corruption, and these protests coalesced into a fully-fledged democracy movement calling for freedom of the press and government accountability. By 1989, the movement had become an uprising, posing a significant threat to the CCP regime, and culminated in a huge demonstration in Tiananmen Square. Members of the Politburo Standing Committee ordered the People’s Liberation Army to quash the protest, authorising it to use “all necessary force.” The result was a bloody massacre of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of protestors and bystanders. Such episodes of widespread public criticism or protest, and the CCP’s suppressive responses, demonstrate not only the CCP’s determination to stay in power, but also the strong desire of many Chinese people to liberalise the political system despite the challenges they have faced in trying to do so.
Chinese leaders claim that the PRC is a democracy, but few western democracy scholars recognise it as such. Although these scholars’ definitions of democracy differ, they generally agree on a few core features, such as the use of elections to choose leaders. Samuel Huntington suggests that a country can be considered democratic “when its most powerful collective decision makers are selected through fair, honest, and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes.” According to this definition, China is not a democracy: it has elections only for village leaders, who have power only over local village matters—and even candidates for village leader are chosen by the CCP. Few Chinese people point to these elections as evidence that China is a democracy. And some western scholars believe that even the presence of democratic procedures is not enough to make a system democratic. For example, Larry Diamond argues that “democratic structures will be mere facades unless people come to value the essential principles of democracy: popular sovereignty, accountability of rulers, freedom, and the rule of law.” Even though many Chinese may value these principles, China’s current political system clearly does not fit that definition of democracy.
Since the Tiananmen Square protest was quashed in 1989, China has lacked a sustained, broadly popular democracy movement. As Bruce Dickson has noted, many Chinese “recognize, in light of the tragic outcome of the 1989 protests, that pushing for democracy is dangerous and unlikely to succeed.” Today, Chinese who advocate for democracy in China tend to be very isolated: many have been imprisoned, killed or forced into exile. The CCP has engaged in a steady propaganda campaign against what it calls “malevolent liberal ideas propagated by the west” and in favour of what it calls “patriotic education”—which claims that “western-style democracy” is unsuitable for China and frames calls for democratic reform as part of a US-led plot to overthrow the CCP government. Their campaign appears to have been extremely successful, since most Chinese citizens these days tend to ridicule democracy advocates in China as stooges who have been duped by western propaganda.
Most Chinese recognise that they have substantially more freedoms than they had during the Maoist period. China’s economic reform without political reform (aptly described by Dickson as “liberalisation without democratisation”) means that the Chinese people have, over the last few decades, experienced a “less intrusive state, more economic opportunities, and more social mobility.” Even though there has been no progress towards instituting the rule of law or loosening the CCP’s monopoly on political power, most Chinese citizens believe, according to numerous public opinion surveys, that there has been a dramatic increase in the level of democracy throughout the post-Mao period, and that China will soon become even more democratic. This may seem puzzling to outside observers, who point out that China is a one-party dictatorship with few (or even any) democratic structures. But the Chinese word for democracy—minzhu (民 主)—is ambiguous: it can mean “rule by the people,” but also “rulers of the people.” And, as Bruce Dickson has explained, most people in mainland China define increased democracy not as an increase in the number of democratic structures, but as “improved governance, a growing economy, and better quality of life.” This focus on political leaders’ actions—rather than on how they are chosen or whether they can be held accountable—might be called a paternalistic concept of democracy; it has its roots in the traditional Confucian concept of Minben (民本)—the belief that the government has an obligation to act in the best interests of the people. If one’s definition of democracy is governing in the public interest, it’s not surprising that—in light of the expansion of freedoms and improved standard of living since the Maoist period—many in China view the country as becoming increasingly democratic.
“As long as incomes continue to rise, higher education is more accessible, health care more available and affordable and so on”—writes Dickson—Chinese people will be unlikely to demand free elections, rule of law, and other structural features of democracy. But there are economic headwinds ahead. China’s aging population, its overreliance on (bad) debt to drive growth, and its chronic underinvestment in human capital will probably prevent it from breaking out of the so-called middle-income trap. If unemployment increases and standards of living stop rising, it could undermine the CCP’s claim to competent economic policymaking upon which its citizens’ perception of the regime’s legitimacy rests, and the regime is likely to face a more demanding public: the Chinese people do not tend to passively accept the status quo.
Although the CCP has always claimed that China is a democracy, it was only in 2017 that it started trying to define what it meant by the term, when the idea of whole-process democracy arose out of the fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee. Since then, the CCP has claimed that “whole-process democracy represents the fundamental interests of all the Chinese people,” and that it is superior to western democracies, which it says are unrepresentative and beholden to special interests. The idea is often couched in language that evokes the traditional Chinese philosophy of benevolent rule (仁政), in which the people’s interests are placed front and centre by benevolent rulers whose policies are based on their love and care for the people. This idea is widely seen as the CCP’s attempt to maintain the stability of its monopoly on political power—and the stability of China’s political system in general—in the face of increasing competition from liberal democracies. Whether propagating this narrative will prevent unrest in the face of China’s oncoming economic problems remains to be seen.
Democracy in the Future
The biggest obstacle to democratisation in China is the CCP regime itself. As we have seen, the regime will go to great lengths to maintain its political monopoly. Democratisation would open up the political system, which is not part of the CCP’s plan. Its leaders’ fear of democratisation is well founded: they are aware that political liberalisation tends to be suicide for a communist regime. The fate of former Leninist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has shown that, once a party’s political monopoly is lost, the whole regime is likely to unravel. And democratisation in other countries has not always led to rosy outcomes, particularly for the dictators personally. For example, in Romania, the fallen dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife were executed after a quick show trial, and pictures of their dead bodies were broadcast on TV.
Moreover, an end to the CCP’s political monopoly would not guarantee a transition to democracy. The record of former communist countries in this respect is mixed. Of the twenty-nine formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, only ten became democracies. The rest have become either personality-based dictatorships or hybrid regimes. Thus, we are unlikely to see a transition in China to democratic self-governance protected by the rule of law—at least in the short-to-medium term.
Practically speaking, democratisation tends to happen in one of three ways, all of which seem unlikely under current circumstances. First, democracy advocates can emerge from within a party elite and lead a transition to democracy from the inside. This is unlikely as long as Xi Jinping, now installed as leader for life, is in power—he has centralised power and purged ideological opposition within the party. Second, a popular movement can challenge and then replace an existing regime. This is unlikely because the CCP maintains a tight grip on social communication through internet censorship, mass surveillance and control of the media, making popular mobilisation harder than ever before. Third, a regime can negotiate with opposition organisations and reach an agreement on the terms of a new political order. This is unlikely because the CCP’s monopoly on political organisation makes it difficult for other political groups to form. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the autocratic regime is secure—probably even unassailable.
Whether China has a democratic future depends, in the first instance, on whether the CCP continues as China’s ruling party. The end of the regime, if it comes, will probably not be pretty. For now, democracy as understood in the west has little purchase for many in China. As Bruce Dickson puts it, “the Chinese public is more concerned with material issues of wealth and security than normative goals of equality and freedom.” However, that does not mean that the Chinese people are indifferent to the rights, freedoms and forms of democracy that many western countries enjoy. While liberal ideas about democracy and freedom have not yet won out in the course of the great tumult that is modern Chinese history, they have nevertheless proved enduringly attractive to many Chinese people. If we wonder why these ideas have not yet been implemented in China, the most accurate answer is probably found in Mao’s famous maxim: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”