Is China Ready for Democracy?

The question of whether China is going to democratize is of growing importance, given the fact that it is playing an increasingly significant role on the international stage, and the fact that its political landscape has changed dramatically over the past two decades, especially after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. In his new book, Democracy in China: The Coming Crisis, prominent professor of philosophy at the University of Hong Kong Ci Jiwei provides a nuanced and profound discussion of this question. Ci argues that one-party rule in China can’t be perpetuated when the social conditions are ripe for democratization. He contends that “China’s increasingly democratic society is creating an objective and irresistible need for transition to a democratic political regime.” Though I disagree with some of his assertions, this book is thought-provoking from both an intellectual and practical perspective. It is worth reading in a time when many western observers and politicians, for nearly two decades, have lost the academic and political imagination to envision a free China.

Ci’s major arguments are not normative but prudential, which is a useful approach. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a similar case of democratization in history, or even to imagine one in the future, that is as complicated as that of contemporary China, considering its population, area, economy, contested tradition, center-local structure, rapid change in social structure and psychology, geopolitical sensitivity in the world, and so forth.

The CCP’s Blood Debt

It’s true that the status quo can’t be defended and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would play a significant role in any process of political change. According to Ci, “[t]he main reason for having democracy in China is that democracy is our best bet for effectively responding to current and especially impending legitimation challenges.” The CCP must be aware that only a democratic system can solve the existing social and political crisis, and “only the party is capable of keeping the lid on the Pandora’s Box, morally and politically speaking.” But there are still reasons to doubt the willingness of the CCP to permit, not to mention lead, a transition to constitutional democracy.

A crucial element that the author did not discuss is “the blood debt” (xuezhai). Since the CCP established its totalitarian system in 1949, the Party has committed extremely cruel and immense anti-humanitarian crimes. An incomplete list would include the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries (1950-1953), Land Reform (1947-1952), Three-Anti/Five-Anti Campaigns(1951-1952), Anti-Rightist Movement (1957-1959), Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Strike Hard (1983), Tiananmen Massacre (1989), Persecution of Falungong (ongoing, since 1999), One-Child Policy (1979-2015), and the cultural genocide, concentration camps, and killings in Tibet and Xinjiang. Hundreds of millions of Han Chinese, Tibetans, Ugyhurs, and others have been subjected to the CCP’s atrocities and are still suffering its brutal policies and practices.

We make a political and intellectual mistake if we claim that the CCP’s decision-making is based on the interests of China or the Chinese people.

The rapid economic growth since the 1980s reduced some of the anger and suffering, but the blood debt is what the CCP cannot eliminate and dares not forget. It is not an exaggeration to say that the blood debt the CCP owes to the People in China is more extensive than any other dictatorial regime since the Third Reich. In my opinion, this is a huge barrier to democratic change. Even though the Chinese elites and dissidents tend to accept an approach of South African-style “Truth and Reconciliation,” the majority of ordinary Chinese people seem not to. It’s worth noting that Charter Eight, an impressive manifesto initiated by Liu Xiaobo and hundreds of Chinese pro-democracy intellectuals, contains an article of “transitional justice” which emphasizes truth, responsibility, and reconciliation. Even if the Chinese people refrain from the strong sentiment of “revenge and counterattack”(qingsuan), which is very unlikely, the CCP leaders would find it hard to believe that “ordinary citizens” “would reward the CCP with an important, even a leading, role in a democratic China.” The longer the party-state remains, the more crimes it will commit, the more people will suffer, and the more difficult it will be for the CCP to believe that they will be forgiven by the people. To permit a democratic China means to end the CCP’s monopoly of political power.

In this context, it is worth recalling what Deng Xiaoping famously said after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre—that the regime would be willing to “kill 200,000 people in exchange for 20 years of stability!” Relatedly, Xi Jinping made a comment about the Soviet Union’s collapse: “In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.” After three decades of rampant corruption under state-capitalism “with Chinese characteristics,” the CCP leaders and officials have more reason to worry about the historical “blood debt” and hostility of the citizenry than in the Deng era.

Can we safely say the next leadership “will inherit the fear of [the Tiananmen Massacre] but not the resoluteness”? Not so much. Ci did not distinguish the CCP’s interest from China’s national interest. On most occasions, the two are in conflict, as I see it. We make a political and intellectual mistake if we claim or imply that the CCP’s decision-making is based on the interests of China or the Chinese people.

Transition to “High-Tech Totalitarianism”?

Professor Ci’s optimistic expectation for democratization in China is heavily based on “the equality of conditions” in China today, and he quotes historian Charles Maier’s claim that “political forms followed changes in social structure.” Ci argues that “With the remarkable advance of the equality of conditions,” including economic, ideological, and social conditions, China “is already on the verge of democracy,” and it’s hard to “justify and to maintain a completely vertical political structure devoid of credible popular consent.” I think these are important and roughly correct observations, but there is a huge gap between socio-political psychology and political collective action. Moreover, is “the equality of conditions” reversible?

For the past four decades, “we find in China to a substantial degree, democratic society, democratic epistemology, and a democratic conception of virtue.” The limited permission of liberal ideas since the 1980s, especially in the 1990s, was consistent with its adoption of a “socialist market economy.” I second that the logic and force of (state) capitalism did profoundly impact Chinese society, culture, and even politics. The legal system was also developed in many positive aspects. But as I see it, the inequality is still enormous. One of many examples is the hukou system, which relegates hundreds of millions of rural residents and migrant workers to “second-class citizen” status. There is also increasing doubt in the statement or assumption that “the middle class” in China will demand liberal democracy. And there is a clear limit to social liberalization and improvements in the legal system.

The CCP did not and will never tolerate any challenge to its political monopoly. The rise and fall of the Rights Defense Movement (weiquan yundong) since the early 2000s is a good example: on the one hand, it was developed in the social space created by marketization, the internet, semi-independent media outlets, and the new discourse and practice of rule by law (yifa zhiguo, distinct from “rule of law”); on the other hand, it was almost wiped out after Xi came to power, when the CCP regarded the Rights Defense Movement as a threat to the security of the regime.

Needless to say, Xi has significantly changed the political landscape in China, especially by the abolition of term limits for the presidency. But many essential political arrangements remain unchanged since 1949, including the CCP’s monopolistic power over the military and judiciary and, to a slightly lesser extent, on media and ideology, all of which are fundamental characteristics of totalitarianism. Over time, in Stein Ringen’s formulation, China has developed into to a sort of “contrology” or “sophisticated totalitarianism.” It is not just Xi himself:  The CCP as a whole chose to lead the regime from a collective dictatorship in the era of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, to a more personal dictatorship closer to Maoism in response to the comprehensive crisis it’s facing. The CCP has cruelly restricted the space for civil society and tightened its control through traditional Maoist methods, as well as modern technology.

An unprecedented “high-tech totalitarianism,” in my terminology, is looming in China. The CCP utilizes its lead in artificial intelligence to make its death grip on Chinese society even more total. China’s Great Firewall, social media, Big Data, e-commerce, and modern telecommunications make it easier than before for the CCP to keep people under surveillance, akin to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The Internet has been used by the CCP as an effective tool for censorship, propaganda, and brainwashing. Facial recognition, voiceprint recognition, gait recognition, DNA collection, and biometric tags have all systematized the CCP’s growing control. In Shandong province, virtual reality was used to test party members’ level of loyalty to the CCP. The social credit system is a horrible case that may have surpassed the imagination of George Orwell. It may not be alarmist to revisit Hayek’s warning—“Fascism is the stage reached after communism has proved an illusion.”

From the vantage point of the CCP, the maintenance of territorial integrity is closely linked to political legitimacy. The concentration camps in Xinjiang are not merely human rights violations, they are also a declaration of sovereignty.

If the CCP strengthens its “high-tech totalitarianism,” it would be an alternative to the prudential case for democracy—or at least this dictatorial regime might last much longer than Professor Ci and many others have imagined, as it will make the resistance on the ground extremely difficult.

The Tiananmen massacre made the Chinese people live in what I have called the “Post-Tank Syndrome.” Anger and fear turned into silence, silence into indifference, and indifference into cynicism. Brainwashing, a distorted market economy, and corrupt politics have created an atmosphere of consumerism and instilled a widespread nationalism and social Darwinism in China. In the atmosphere of fear and despair, with the temptation of desire and power, most Chinese people admire and support those who have power and money. Increasingly indifferent to universal values and morality, people forget, marginalize, and mock freedom fighters and prisoners of conscience. The most horrible autocracy is not the one that suppresses resistance, but the one that makes you feel that it is unnecessary to resist, or even makes you defend the regime. It is part of the social thoughts and mental habits—Tocqueville’s  “mores”—in China today. The consequence of the long-term one-party rule is not only the suppression of freedom and human rights, but also moral and social decay, which is even more far-reaching. It seems to be a dilemma: the more undemocratic a political system is, the fewer social and personal conditions there are to start a smooth democratization.

Nationalism and Contested Identities

A guiding ideology normally plays a salient role in a totalitarian regime, but the post-Mao era saw an obvious decline of the teleological-revolutionary discourse. This was parallel to the political and economic “reform and opening up” (gaige kaifang) policy. Gradually, the CCP has transformed from a dogmatic party to a pragmatic party. This partly contributed to the “equality of conditions” for the past four decades, but also brought concerns of ideological insecurity. Xi Jinping’s turning to Maoist propaganda and cult of personality can be seen as a reaction to the pragmatic trend.

It is not plausible anymore to resort to quasi-theological Marxism or Communism. Hence, statism-nationalism became a useful tool to mobilize national solidarity. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang have been increasingly targeted and face more pressure and persecution. The global ambition—the China Dream or “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—became the new slogan. Domestic separatism and “Western hostile forces” which were always labeled as enemies, seemingly returned to the center of the political stage. Official scholars defend the regime with Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty and enemy-friend distinction. Statism-nationalism, which will be an obstacle to democratization, needs to be closely observed.

True, as Ci notes, “performance is not legitimacy and legitimacy matters even more.” The performance itself—the China Miracle that the Chinese authorities proudly advertised—has a dark side: The extremely high Gini-coefficient, low labor rights, environmental degradation, and rampant injustice and corruption are just a few of its problems. The policy of “reform and opening up” has changed the social and political landscape in many different aspects, but we should keep in mind that it came not from the party’s gift, but from its sin. Without the closed-door planned economy, mass mobilized totalitarianism, theft, and anti-intellectualism of the Mao era, there would have been little need for “reform and opening up.” Ci’s analysis of the positive results of economic development is accurate, but it would not be a complete picture if we ignore or downplay the fact that the economic and technological achievements have facilitated the CCP’s capacity of controlling society.

From the vantage point of the CCP, the maintenance of territorial integrity is closely linked to political legitimacy. The concentration camps in Xinjiang and the extreme suppression in Tibet and Hong Kong are not merely human rights violations, they are also a declaration of sovereignty by a powerful regime facing a legitimacy crisis. Ci argues that the political transition should be gradual and prudent, mainly because of “China’s need for exceptionally strong central authority.” “The fortunes of democracy in China are indissolubly bound up with a democratic or democratizing China’s ability to hold the entire country securely together and safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Indeed the territorial integrity and national identity issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, Southern Mongolia—particularly of Xinjiang and Tibet—might be the underestimated obstacle to China’s democratization.

However, the claim that these regions are inseparable parts of China,  a point that the Chinese government relentlessly propagandizes, is obviously false. If we say that territorial integrity should take priority over democratic transition, we are seriously undermining the people’s right to self-determination and their firm resoluteness to fight for a high-level of genuine autonomy or national independence. The power of national identity is not easy to eliminate: even concentration camps won’t be able to accomplish that. And time matters. The longer the CCP’s rule lasts, the more distrust and hatred it will create, and the more unlikely it will become that Xinjiang and Tibet willingly remain in China. Whenever the CCP starts to lose control, it will be an opportunity those peoples will seize upon to campaign for independence from China’s occupation. It will add enormous complications to China’s political transition, and people concerned about China’s democratic future should take this seriously. It requires a high level of wisdom, patience, and compassion. But the moral basis of democratic transition will be greatly eroded if any democracy advocates disregard and oppress the efforts of Tibetans, Uighurs, and other people calling for independence.

There are many other interesting and important arguments in this book that need further exploration. But to conclude, is China ready for a meaningful democracy? Professor Ci argues that the Chinese society has been substantially democratized by “the equality of conditions” and that the CCP, especially the next leadership, has great need, interest, and capacity to accept or lead a democratic transition. Yet my view is that, while there are positive factors to suggest such a transition, the uncertainties and obstacles are even greater.