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The goal of 'democracy with Chinese characteristics'

By Jieh-Yung Lo - posted Thursday, 5 July 2007

On Thursday, April 19, China announced that its economy is increasing at a tremendous rate, growing by 11.1 per cent in the first quarter of this year: and it isn’t democracy that has caused such growth. In fact, the West continues to think that economic growth is the same as democratisation. But, by China’s own admission - it isn’t.

The West has constantly pressured the Chinese Government to embrace democracy. Meanwhile the Communist Party has informed intellectuals that political liberalisation and democracy is still a long way off, despite the strong momentum of economic modernisation over the past two decades. But what needs to be made clear is that economic growth and the incursion of large western corporations into the Chinese market does not equate to democratisation.

China is not ready for democracy. The Chinese Government’s main goal is to continue to build on its economic and social reform. China has undergone massive changes in the past two decades and by doing so, has encountered many significant problems. Although China enjoys growing wealth, increasing per capita incomes, and rising living standards, it also suffers from environmental degradation and a host of social ills including political unrest, increased crime and a fraying social safety net.


The wealth gap in China between its urban and rural citizens is now one of the largest in the world. Farmers pay their own health care and education costs, meaning their real incomes are a sixth of China’s urban residents. Democracy remains the last priority for the Chinese Government.

Some believe that China’s continuing focus on economic reform, without a democratic system, could lead to of the same bureaucratic capitalism that brought down the National Government, under Chiang Kai Shek in 1949. Zhou Ruijin, a former People’s Daily editor known for his reformist views stated that “greater democratic openness is necessary to defuse tensions over a growing gap between rich and poor”, which he warned could lead to instability. And former Renmin University Vice President Xie Tao, suggested that China should move speedily toward a Scandinavian-like social-welfare democracy.

Many people in China are hostile to the idea of democracy. After all, democracy conflicts not only with China’s current socialist system, but also with its political culture. Also, the power to vote would seem to be a trivial issue for the hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens who are barely educated. Democracy is only effective when citizens are informed and understand their individual rights and responsibilities.

Ideally, the people that would benefit from elections would be farmers. Rural residents make up 70 per cent of China’s population and will dominate any fairly elected parliament. Arthur Waldron, Senior Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania stated that “rural residents would force the Government to give them greater economic opportunities, demand the equality of treatment with residents from urban areas and a larger voice in major projects”. Providing money for rural areas would further strain China’s economy and budget as billions of dollars will be needed to address these problems.

From a political stand point, China is still far from reaching its political goal, “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Premier Wen Jiabao stated at a leadership platform this year “we are still far away from advancing out of the primary stages of socialism; the socialist system is not contradictory to democracy”. At the same time, Wen added, “A highly developed democracy and a complete legal system are inherent requirements of the socialist system and an important benchmark of a mature socialist system”.

China’s current constitution does provide for elections and the associated constitutional structures and independent judicial institutions. If China ever becomes a democracy, it would be defined in instrumental terms, as a force that assists party leaders to stay in touch with the people and provide a popular check on corruption rather than as the core of a new political system in which people choose their leaders in free elections.


There is no time limit of when China would successfully make the transition to democracy. Many argue that China would develop its own system of democracy to suit Chinese characteristics. In fact, the Chinese Government has been experimenting in its own democracy in local villages all over China. According to one survey, there will be 300,000 village committee elections in China’s 18 provinces this year alone. In many villages, officials are making efforts and progress to involve ordinary citizens in local decision making.

Democracy is not a concept inherent in Chinese culture or political philosophy. The philosophies of the West usually build their case on the rights and values of the individual. Not so the Chinese, because they fear above all, national defeat and disintegration.

Chinese democrats argue that a “democracy with Chinese characteristics” is good, not simply because it will grant people freedom of speech, but above all it will make China strong. Their argument is that the people are the ultimate source of strength; therefore the people must take responsibility for the nation. They must be free to express their views and organise themselves to vote.

The problem with this argument is that it can play into the hands of those who believe that freedom must be sacrificed for the national interest of the nation. For if strengthening China is the overriding purpose of politics, and then arguably democracy may be less effective then other political systems.

One problem is how to reconcile the two sets of priorities: to combine freedom of speech and the right to vote with enough guidance to maintain national unity and security. The ultimate problem is what political and social system can turn around the poverty of hundreds of millions of people. Only time will tell.

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About the Author

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Melbourne based writer and Associate Producer of the upcoming documentary film New Gold Mountain - Your Chinese Australia.

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