Democracy in China: It’s in the eye of the beholder?


China watchers in the West have been fruitlessly searching for signs of democracy for more than 25 years, notes Bruce J. Dickson, professor of political science at George Washington University. But there has not been a sustained democracy movement in China since the tragic end of protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in 1989. Most outside observers agree that the People’s Republic remains what it has been since its founding in 1949: a one-party authoritarian regime, he writes for The LA Times:

Most Chinese citizens do not see it that way, however. In a nationwide survey in 2014, more than 4,000 urban Chinese were asked how democratic they perceived China to be at different points in time. The vast majority view the level of democracy as increasing steadily since the late 1970s. Almost 60% believe China is already somewhat or very democratic today. Remarkably, more than 80% are optimistic that in the near future China will enjoy a level of democracy on par with the United States. 

Survey respondents were given the opportunity to define democracy in their own words, notes Dickson, and author of The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival:

Most Americans would define it as a political system with free elections, competitive parties, rule of law and related institutions of liberal democracy. But less than 5% of Chinese pointed to those attributes. 

About 15% defined democracy in terms of rights: for example, “people enjoy the right to information” and “the opportunity and right to tell the government their views.” Another 15% identified equality and justice among citizens: “Everyone is treated equally” and “to be more equal in terms of income, housing, and employment” were typical responses of this type. In short, about one-third of urban Chinese defined democracy in terms of checks and balances or other ways that closely match Western notions. 

A different way of understanding the current wave of prosecutions of rights defenders and the propaganda around them is to view them as part of a larger attempt to politicize the defense of individual rights in general, argues Yiyi Lu, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and the author of “Non-Governmental Organisations in China: The Rise of Dependent Autonomy” (Routledge 2008). In China, the term weiquan, or “rights defense,” refers to both legal and extra-legal actions that individuals and groups take to defend their private or public rights and interests. As rights consciousness rises and mounting economic and social problems affect an increasing number of the population, the ranks of rights defenders have continued to grow, she writes for The Wall Street Journal:

The government appears to think that the old arrangement created too many opportunities for its domestic and foreign enemies to covertly foment “color revolution” under the cover of rights defense. Rights defense activities, even when directed at non-political issues, can expose human rights and power abuse, diminish trust in the government and increase social tensions. Perhaps more worrying for the government, rights defenders are often able to develop organizational and communication skills and learn to network through their experience.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not shied away from speaking truth to Chinese communist power, The FT reports:

In a parting comment about executives’ relatively relaxed view towards Chinese acquisitions of German know-how, she told them: “I think you are being naive.”….. Both Ms Merkel and Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president, speak bluntly to their Chinese counterparts in private — and often in public as well. In an address to university students in Shanghai this year, Mr Gauck said that under communist rule East Germans “were neither happy nor liberated” in a country that “silenced its own people, locked them up and humiliated those who refuse to comply with the will of the leaders”.

China is in the midst of what many overseas scholars say is its harshest crackdown on human rights and civil society in decades, marked by officially-sponsored paranoia about foreign forces The Los Angeles Times reports:

Communist Party leaders have, for example, pointed to the fact that some organizers of the 2014 Hong Kong democracy protests met with representatives of the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit group, as proof that the demonstrations were a U.S. plot. China recently warned citizens to be careful about dating foreigners, lest they turn out to be spies.




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