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Liberalization in China and the prospects for democracy


Changes have been 'important, but incremental'

By Suisheng Zhao

(CNN) -- After the end of the Cold War, some Western commentators looked to the demise of the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to predict the collapse of the Communist regime in China. However, instead of collapsing, China has experienced astonishing economic growth in the 1990s.

Although it is arguable whether rapid economic development has significantly enhanced the legitimacy of the Communist regime, it certainly has not ensured the transformation of China into a liberal democracy.


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The change in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, to many Western observers, demonstrated the victory of democratic values. But to China's leaders and its people, it demonstrated the necessity of maintaining political stability and undivided national sovereignty.

Many Chinese people previously active in the democratic movement have become more and more pragmatic about democratic ideals, and have focused their attentions on economic and career endeavors.

China's decade-long economic boom and tightly controlled media have helped make the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 a fading memory for a new generation of students  

As a New York Times reporter wrote in Beijing on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, "Young Chinese, in particular, say they are more concerned with pursuing careers than multiparty democracy, which they see as a distant prospect. Many students and other Chinese now view the 1989 protests as naive and its leaders as uncompromising."

Incremental liberalization

This development has led some observers to wonder if China will have a liberal democracy any time soon, and speculation has inclined toward pessimism. Skeptics point out that Chinese authoritarianism has endured for millennia, and that China has repeatedly resisted the shifting tides of modern world history.

This view, as exaggerated as the imminent-collapse view, has ignored the incremental, but important, political liberalization in China during recent decades.

As a result of political liberalization, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ceased to be a monolithic institution. Although it remains a ticket that must be punched, a path for the upwardly mobile and politically ambitious, most people join the party just to advance their careers and power ambitions.

No longer seeking to penetrate the society, the CCP has become a network for the bureaucratic elite that offers training and connections to power. In the process, it has transformed itself from a revolutionary party to a pragmatic, status quo party.

A training ground for democracy

Although political liberalization has not changed the one-party rule of the CCP, it has certainly brought about gradual, but important, changes toward democratization.

Multiple candidates and secret ballots have been introduced in the election of village committees, and for election to people's congresses at the local and county levels. The direct election of village committees started as a national policy in 1987, and almost all of China's 1 million villages have held at least one round of elections since then.

Han Weijun
Han Weijun of Hebei became his village's first democratically elected village chief in May 1999. One-third of China's villages have held at least one round of democratic elections.  

These elections are a training ground for democracy because many town and city residents are becoming aware of their benefits. Villagers are voting more responsive and talented leaders into office, many of them young entrepreneurs who may or may not be members of the Communist Party.

At the national level, the National People's Congress is no longer merely a rubber-stamp parliament. It actually debates issues and sizable blocs of representatives often oppose officially approved candidates and motions.

This political liberalization, coupled with economic liberalization, has slowly laid down a foundation for democratization. It is not impossible that the Communist Party will gradually open elections above the county level.

In that case, democratization would take place not by the replacement of the CCP by exiled democratic forces from below. Rather, the transition would come from above and a democratic society could begin to develop gradually under the Communist state.

Enormous advantages

Unless the CCP were totally devastated by such a transition, which is unlikely, it would probably be in the best position to win elections. The party's organizational sophistication and control over resources would give it enormous advantages and probably enable it to win elections.

In this case, the CCP would continue to be a ruling party, and a democratized China could have a system like those in Taiwan and Japan, where a single party dominates.

The process would be hard, prolonged, complex and inconclusive because it would be difficult for any CCP leader who hoped to maintain political power to take the first step across the line the party has drawn against power-sharing with any political group.

Such a transition could occur, however, if the party, or a substantial faction within it, perceives that the potential advantages of a shift from slow liberalization to more rapid and fundamental democratization outweigh the risks of retaining authoritarian rule.

The emerging Chinese democracy, in this case, might not be recognizable to Western observers because, as China scholar Andrew J. Nathan points out, "When Chinese democracy begins to take shape, it may turn out to be a mixture of democratic and authoritarian elements, openness and secrecy, idealism and selfishness, turbulence and stability."

It is hard to predict whether China will eventually adopt a Western model of liberal democracy. But it is certain that Chinese democracy will be shaped both by Chinese historical tradition and the political power configuration at the time of transition.

Suisheng Zhao is Campbell National Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and associate professor of government/East Asian politics at Colby College. He is the editor of The Journal of Contemporary China.

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