China is not a democracy; at least not in the sense to which our western sensibility is acclimated. Starting in the 1980s (the period of opening up and reform), the government organized village elections in which several candidates would run. They labelled this “the New Democracy” or “Democracy with Chinese characteristics”.
Nevertheless, in practice each of the candidates was chosen or in the least “approved” by the single dominant Communist Party of China. Higher levels within the echelons of government are indirectly elected; with candidates, in essence, being vetted by high-rankers within government. Only the former British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau have been given the vote. But, as in the village elections, those who run for election are strictly and closely selected by the leadership of the Communist Party. It is for these reasons, and not unfairly, that China is deemed undemocratic. And there is little effort by the Party to deny this allegation. Quick to express scepticism over democracy in China, critics of this notion nominally tout the idea that China is better off because positions are assumed by people who are qualified by due merit as opposed to popularity, not to mention that traditional Chinese values are often said to be not in line with the idea and practice of liberal democracy (though in fairness, liberal democratic Taiwan, whom they claim is a part of China may serve as a rebuttal to this claim).
Following the death of Mao, Deng Xiaoping who was much less economically (not so much politically) conservative and much more pragmatic than Chairman Mao and his comrades, rolled out a number of reforms that were calculated to stimulate and modernise the Chinese economy. A privatisation scheme was unfolded and people were paid in differentiated amounts and according to how much they produced for the first time in the 1970s and special economic zones were created in some coastal cities where government involvement was not as pronounced as it had been under Chairman Mao. Soon a middle class (claimed to be the nominal force behind democratisation in the other wealthy countries in the region such as South Korea and Taiwan) began to take form – and this was greatly encouraged as it was a signpost that China was growing. But these reforms only went so far where political life was concerned – here there was to be no free market of values and ideas; the Communist Party was still in charge. It is indeed true that, unlike before, the people could disagree with the leader and could (though in a decidedly Chinese and respectful manner in which one could not go “too far”), criticise the government’s policies. This was a long way since the Hundred Flowers campaign in which dissenters were baited into voicing their opinions and then purged for doing so. But it still had its limits wedded into it. And there is no stauncher reminder of this than the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 1986 and subsequent demotion of reformist elements in the Party, most notably Hu Yaobang. The subsequent declaration of martial law and crackdown on people who seemingly were only guilty of wanting their state to politically open up and be more democratic was only more proof that the Chinese state, just three years before the Soviet Union and much of communist Eastern Europe would undergo their own largely successful conversions to democracy, was not willing to transform itself overnight into a democracy.
And in fact one could argue that the reforms necessitated an even less democratic China in that they reverted, in rhetoric and in ends at least, to the China of the Great Leap Forward. Consider the extent to which the planning is done from above and, necessarily, popular participation is seen as potentially opening a window for dissent and therefore a path towards distraction from the task at hand. So much of what China has achieved and hopes to achieve in the wake of the reforms and opening up is pinned to a particularly anti-democratic, anti-populist notion of the state and its constituent citizens.
This speaks to another reason as to why China will not democratise anytime soon. That of the outside world which China has been increasingly trading with since Deng took to opening up the republic and made it the ‘world’s factory’. While it would appear that in rhetoric at least, the United States and other ‘standard-bearers’ of liberal democracy are at odds with China over the country’s anti-democratic stance and its poor human rights record, in actual fact the outside world benefits greatly from a non-democratic China. These outside forces have been able to harness the fact that China’s citizens have tenuous standing and codified human rights and have used this to optimise their own costs of production. Knowing that the government wants more and more of the world to outsource manufacturing to it so that it may grow its economy by the close to 10% figure it desires and that it is willing and able to clampdown significant protests by the workers, many western multinational corporations have greatly outsourced their production to China in full confidence that the regime will remain stable and that the labour will remain cheap to compensate and with very few requirements to provide (air-conditioning, working hours cut off and even age restrictions). This essentially means then that outside “pressure” for China to democratise will be limited to Nobel Prize giving to the country’s would-be reformers, speeches at the United Nations, Amnesty International reports and little else. Indeed, many cower to even allow an aged religious leader a visa into its borders in fears that it might offend the hardliners in the Chinese government and therefore compromise its investments and manufacturing.
In any case, the Communist Party has very little actual opposition. The strongest challenge it has faced in way of democratisation may be said to be the Democracy Party of China which was established by former Tiananmen Square student protestors. In just 24 hours after the founders tried to unsuccessfully register the party, the central government cracked down on the organisation’s leaders. C Wong Donghai was quickly sentenced on December 21, 1998 to 11 years of imprisonment and three years of deprivation of political rights “for subversion of the tranquillity of the republic.” And on the very same day, another prominent member, Xu Wenli was sentenced to 13 years “for attempting to overthrow the Communist Party.” Many more were to suffer similar or close to similar fates. The only legally permitted pro-democracy party in China is the meagre, powerless 250,000-member China Democratic League which was founded in 1941 and quickly became absorbed into the United Front coalition led by the CCP.
The 2014 Yellow Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, the most recent episode in attempts by the citizens of that region to achieve concessions from Beijing achieved very little and in fact caused even more reaction on the part of the CCP – there were no changes in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress which the 100,000 protestors were calling for and the grip over entertainment, media and the press was tightened even more. The timing could not have been worse, for this movement coincided with President Xi Jinping’s policy of a crackdown on dissenters and factionalists. The incumbent President and Paramount Leader, touted by British leftist news magazine The NewStatesman as ‘Mini-Mao’ for supposedly being the most consolidated and powerful President of China since Mao, has launched a campaign under the banner of anti-corruption with the aim of purging elements that show themselves poised to threaten the status quo.
Furthermore, there is also the controversial notion that the people of China would not benefit from transparency. The Chinese practice of ‘guangxi’ which is characterised by usage of one’s connections for self-advancement in dealings is widely used by hundreds of millions of Chinese people from social settings to business and government transactions; from small villages to megacities. Instilling democracy with its appendage of total transparency would uproot the way of life for a vast majority of China’s population and would likely meet opposition no matter how minimal. And while it is difficult to generalise, China is after all home to over a billion people, it has been suggested that a large number of citizens are abject to revolutions which tend to be costly and bring their lives to a grinding halt. For not only would democracy be a change in the way of government, but also the character of social life to which the people of China have become acclimated.
When the officials of China look at the democratic world, there is not much that indicates to them that democracy breeds national unity – much the opposite. In England there is the Scottish question, in Spain there is Catalonia, in Belgium there is Wallonia, in Canada there is Quebec, and close to home in India there is Kashmir (over whom in any case, the Chinese seek to assert their claim). To them, therefore, and not at all without reason, the creation of a democratic system would only serve to stoke and fuel the flames of secessionism. Already, they are constantly having to show a firm hand and cold prison cells for those who wish to carve out of China a series of separate, independent states. Not only are there disputes with neighbours over island territories, and Taiwan over its sovereignty, but China is already having to deal with these elements in its mainland provinces. There is, most famously, the issue of Tibet and then there is that of the province of Xinjiang. The province is mostly populated by a Muslim Uygur population which sees itself as more Turkic than (Han) Chinese and who seek independence along the lines of Mongolia or even a union with one of the adjoining majority Muslim, Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. And this has been in spite of constant intimidation and express firmness by the Chinese state. How much more of the likelihood that they would seek independence if China becomes a democracy? How much more so when the instrument of the referendum is at the disposal? Would they attempt to use it for the purposes of breaking away from the government of Beijing which, it is at least alleged, mistreats and violates their rights on account of their linguistic idiosyncrasies, ethnicity and Muslim faith which they stridently cling on to despite incentives to the contrary by the overwhelmingly atheist, Marxist government? Handing them the referendum would only be a blank cheque for them to rip from China the one-and-a-half-million square-kilometre, oil-laden and natural gas haven (the province being the largest producer of the substance in China). Democracy would stand to be a setback therefore to not only China’s territorial integrity but, ultimately, to its economic prospects and explicit aims. An article by Horowitz in Quartz in 2016 detailed the extent to which China may have actually been further less incentivised towards democracy by the recent results of Brexit for the removal of Britain from the European Union.
The manner in which China’s government is run also makes it unlikely that the state will, voluntarily at least, become democratic. First of all, the Paramount leader wears the three hats of President of the People’s Republic of China, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Committee. This makes dissent from either structures very unlikely – and this is by design. In addition to this, the Politburo is garnered from a selection process by the current Politburo membership who closely vet and select their successors and colleagues accordingly those whom they deem to be most likely continue the party’s line of tight control over the Chinese society. In addition to this, the party has well over 80 million card-carrying members (making it the largest political party in the world) – and has a tight grip over China’s other “major” political force, the eight-party coalition, the United Front (allowed to exist, in any case, for the lack of political threat it poses).
So, will China become a democracy? It depends. As historians and Communist Party leadership alike will recall (and they most certainly do recall) the simultaneous coalition of factors, and little else, was the deciding force which made it possible to answer to the affirmative, for the most part in any case, when the question was posed on whether “could China become a one-party, communist people’s republic?” We should not anticipate a democratic overhaul in China anytime soon, but likewise we should not be too surprised if it occurs.