Is China Ready for Democracy?

Is China Ready for Democracy?
(AP Photo/Yang Qing)

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.

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