Perspectives on Democracy

China: Vicissitudes of Definitions

Peter Zarrow, September 2016

Sun Yat-sen (pictured here on a postcard) became president of the new Republic of China in the course of the 1911 Revolution.Let us imagine that 35 years from now, in about the year 2050, China is some kind of constitutional democracy. We then have two interrelated questions: what kind of democracy and how did it come about?

First scenario: the National People’s Congress (NPC), constitutionally the highest legislative body of the state, evolved from being a rubber stamp into a parliament that could check the government (that is, the executive). The NPC’s nearly 3,000 members, originally chosen by indirect elections through layers of electorates from villages to provincial assemblies, all under the careful vetting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), began to adopt independent positions and formed new political parties, partly based on CCP factions and partly based on local interest groups.

Second scenario: a more federalist system emerged as provincial administrations—with their greater focus on local needs—gradually took over functions such as infrastructure, economic development, and, especially, social services. Provincial assemblies elected by district bodies were better able to represent local interests, and the central government’s powers diminished.

Third scenario: consumerism—as China’s de facto governing ideology—increasingly formed the basis of a new kind of individual subjectivity, and people in villages, towns, and cities formed voluntary associations of all kinds: NIMBY movements, cooperatives, workplace unions, and various civic organizations devoted to constituencies such as migrants, minorities, women, LGBT people, and so forth. Gradually, these groups pushed the limits of allowable civic action and became ever more institutionalized, and finally the government found it impossible to function without their active participation.

In the year 2050, the People’s Republic of China will be 100 years old, and the current president, Xi Jinping, has promised that by then China will be a middle-class society (xiaokang) that practices “consultative democracy” through the development of “socialist deliberative democracy.” Meanwhile, Xi has been leading the most thoroughgoing repression of civil society since the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In a major speech in 2014, Xi warned that “democracy is not an ornament to be used for decoration” but rather entails the kind of consistent popular deliberation that elections, for example, fail to provide. Still, the government has suppressed any talk of alternative democratic institutions.

We might conclude that “democracy” has no meaning in China, but in fact the government’s own lip service to it suggests that the term retains strong discursive power. If the definition of democracy is institutionalized electoral politics and liberal checks on government, this kind of democracy does have a faint but real history in China. And even more, if democracy is defined in terms of popular participation in the political sphere, then a good deal of modern Chinese history can be written as the story of experiments in popular mobilization.

Democracy was introduced into mainstream Chinese political discourse, through a set of translated terms, in the 1890s and has remained central to political life ever since. Three points are worth making here. First, at some point democracy (minzhu) became a Chinese concept; it is silly and wrong to go on labeling it as foreign. (Indeed, from the 1890s to today, there have been plenty of people claiming that democracy is actually an ancient Chinese concept.) Second, the Chinese notion of democracy naturally has been informed by Chinese traditions and circumstances, and has thus evolved in distinct ways. Third, democracy is not only a theoretical concept: in various forms and forums it has been widely practiced throughout the entire modern period, even though no Chinese state has been a constitutional democracy.

For proponents of radical change at the end of the Qing dynasty—say, from the 1880s to the 1911 Revolution, which overthrew the dynasty and tried to implement a republic—democracy was about “connecting” government and people. Radicals saw the traditional political system as despotic, and a China beset by foreign imperialism needed the magic that had made Western countries strong. Legitimate rule could no longer be derived from Heaven but only from the people. In 1908, a very limited franchise (adult males of education and property) elected “consultative” assemblies, followed by provincial assemblies and, in 1910, a national assembly that turned out to be quite assertive. These bodies, along with organizations like chambers of commerce and educational and agricultural associations, marked the beginning of a new practice of representation that involved not only a role for mediators between populace and ruler but a role for political actors working for the public good.

With the descent of China into warlordism in the wake of the 1911 Revolution, ­democracy came to refer to popular sovereignty, but political leaders believed an enlightened elite needed to educate a backward populace before democratic institutions could be established. In the 1920s the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) under Sun Yat-sen promised to institute constitutional government, but only after an extended period of “tutelage” (military dictatorship). The CCP’s version of democratic centralism amounted to controlled debate within the party, and even extended into society via party-approved forums, with unquestioning obedience owed to the leaders’ final decisions. The CCP in this sense was heir to the Nationalists’ tutelage, and this system, with its frequent forays into state terrorism, has lasted to the present day.1

For Mao Zedong, there could be no democracy outside of class struggle. Communist democracy claimed that the vanguard party represented the proletariat, but in practice, the definition of class struggle was variable. Mao’s “new democracy” of 1940 envisioned an alliance of classes, including elements of the bourgeoisie, that would unite to resist the Japanese invasion. Old—bourgeois—democracy, according to Mao, had failed in its task to defeat the forces of feudalism and imperialism; hence, the need for a Communist-led bourgeois revolution. But on the eve of the Liberation of 1949, Mao spoke of “democratic dictatorship,” offering democracy to the people and dictatorship to their enemies, the capitalists and landlords.

A good deal of modern Chinese history can be written as the story of experiments in popular mobilization.

Chinese democracy has veered between participation and tutelage. One source of participation has been government-­sponsored, as in the Cultural Revolution (1966–69); another, more structurally based participation emerged from alliances between nonofficial interest groups and local governments. Of course, such alliances have been a source of corruption, but sometimes they provide nodes of resistance against an autocratic center.

Democracy has thus been an intrinsic part of Chinese political discourse for well over a century. Democracy movements—led by brave dissenters in the late Qing, under the Nationalists, even under Mao, and certainly today—have made sure of that. Chinese intellectuals are engaged in important discussions of social justice and inequalities of power, substantive democracy and the limits of representation, free markets and the public good, and the good and bad points of Western democracies. But there is more to Chinese democracy than dissent. Today, China is a mass consumer society: it is experiencing a radical contradiction between economic desire and political needs. This contradiction does not lie simply in the craving of a growing middle class for more power (or less interference), it reflects the growing divorce of the moral basis of daily life (freedom to choose) and the raison d’être of the governing class (social stability). Social as well as political forces fear disorder, a deeply ingrained fear after the chaos of the 20th century. Nationalism is a strong current in contemporary Chinese politics, but more and more people are enjoying the liberties of private life that have developed through the post-Mao reforms. A younger generation has little memory of earlier disorder or even a strong historical sense of the thesis of “China’s century of humiliation” that justified strong state-building projects through the present day. The pluralism inherent in today’s consumer society has begun to legitimate the various interests of individuals and groups in ways that official statism cannot incorporate and that create a push for some new kind of Chinese democracy.

At the end of the 19th century, literati formed study societies whose members were to regard themselves as equal, regardless of their social status or official position. At the beginning of the 21st century, countless social media accounts now criticize government actions, call for reforms, and advocate “democracy,” which remains a deeply ingrained, if vague, public ideal. Chinese leaders’ recent demands that “Western values” be repudiated have fallen on deaf ears, even as the present moment is one of violent repression of civil society. Chinese increasingly expect their officials to be efficient—fulfilling socially approved goals—and honest. The dilemma facing the CCP today is this: while the main causes of popular discontent, such as rampant inequality and corruption, are structurally rooted in the political system, structural change of the system would be extremely dangerous to the CCP itself. It is doubtful that the current policies of expanding state capitalism while shrinking civil society are viable in the long run.

Peter Zarrow is professor of history at the University of Connecticut. His most recent monograph is Educating China: Knowledge, Society, and Textbooks in a Modernizing World, 1902–1937 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015), and he is a contributor to The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, ed. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016).


1. In Taiwan, the Nationalist government did democratize in the 1980s as new social forces based partly on ethnic differences and partly on political grievances delegitimated Guomindang rule on the grounds that it was in essence colonial despotism. While Sunism had been used to justify tutelage (martial law, in the case of Taiwan), the democratic discourse that had infiltrated Chinese political thought now justified radical change in state forms and even Taiwanese identity.

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