Commentary Magazine

A Free and Democratic China?

Fifty long years have passed since Communist China came into being, and there is still no sign that Communism is on the way out. The blood of Tiananmen Square has been forgotten. Cities like Shanghai are cleaner and more prosperous than anyone can remember. Chinese leaders are sought-after guests in the United States and elsewhere. On their visits, they speak of many matters, but one thing they make absolutely clear is that they have no intention of altering the Communist system of authority. On this point, they meet with little if any resistance from their hosts.

A strong U.S. constituency supports a placatory approach to the People’s Republic, an approach whose fruits were most strikingly on display in September’s bipartisan vote in the Senate to remove any restraints on trade with Beijing. It is not that Americans who think and write and plan about China endorse dictatorship; it is rather that they discount the possibility of democracy, and prefer the familiar to the unknown. Many of them also believe that, when all is said and done, China is fundamentally on the right track, being (they maintain) economically in better shape than Russia and getting freer with every passing day. That being so, there is every reason for the United States to resume its traditional approach to Asia—which for almost a century has placed China at the center—and unhesitatingly to bring China into the inner councils of the international community. Such an approach, the argument concludes, is both realistic and likely to contribute to peace and stability.

The trouble is, however, that China will not be able to play the role that has been assigned to it unless its domestic situation is truly in order—which is very far from being the case. The USSR, about which we entertained similar hopes in the late 1980’s, collapsed suddenly and with a terrible thud; and even though, at the time, that country was relatively isolated, the impact of its collapse still reverberates ten years later. To suppose that China can avoid a similar fate is to blind oneself to reality.



Foreign observers have regularly been impressed, indeed overwhelmed, by one particular quality of China: its apparent homogeneity. Even today, many have been led to imagine that a mysterious cement of shared “Chineseness” somehow binds that country together in a way that more diverse societies can only admire. But Chinese homogeneity is superficial at best. Beneath the surface lie the same differences in belief, ambition, and interest as in any other society. Shared ethnicity does not render China immune to the basic challenges faced by every human community, nor can it substitute for legitimate and functional political institutions.

It is, indeed, the lack of such institutions that has been the source of the half-dozen big or small civil wars in China since the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, not to speak of the massive attempts at political reconstruction during the same period, most recently through the imposition of Communism. None of these experiments has proved conclusive or enduring. China’s remarkable unity and historical continuity are indeed an impressive human achievement—but also a rather fragile one.

How has this fragile achievement been sustained politically? The answer is, through radical simplification and standardization. Chinese society is constructed out of modular units—whether farming families in traditional times or interchangeable members of “the masses” under Communism. In and among themselves, these units are without cohesiveness. They are, as the early-20th-century revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen put it, a sheet of loose sand; or, in the words of an ancient source, a wall of pebbles; or again, according to a recent analyst, a pyramid of ball bearings. Historically, what has bound these granules together is a few simple rules and central institutions and a moral community forged—in olden times—by universal study of the Confucian classics.

Under Communism, the model worked, and still works, like this: only two institutions, the party and the military, are national in scope, and even then only for people at the very top. Below that level there are provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities; but the basic building block of society is the danwei, or “unit.” This can be a factory or a farm, a cruise ship or a university department. It is where each person collects his pay, makes his friends, gets his education, receives his medical care, obtains his housing—in effect, where he spends his life. The danwei makes no sense economically, but it is the basic administrative entity and also the latter-day substitute for moral community, suffused with Communist mythology and slogans.

In the decade since the Tiananmen Square massacre, much has changed in China—but mostly economically, and even in that realm more tenuously than is commonly understood. Once order was restored in Beijing, the leadership concentrated on getting more money to people as part of an implicit bargain: if you let us stay in power, we will see to it that your standard of living rises. Both sides have kept that particular bargain rather well.

Thanks to the liberation of China’s own potential, and thanks still more to foreign connections, trade, and investment, the standard of living for Chinese urban populations, particularly along the coast, has risen impressively. But economic development is radically uneven and has led to regional differentiation and inequality. Of the country’s overall GDP, almost half is accounted for by a few major urban areas and their hinterlands: greater Guangzhou, greater Shanghai, and Beijing-Tianjin. More than half of China’s current balance-of-payments surplus is accounted for by a single province, Guangdong, alone.

Rich areas do not need the center, but poor ones desperately need redistribution. New wealth, however, is mostly staying at the provincial level and not reaching the center. The result is that the national government in Beijing runs a deficit, and has been politically weakened vis-à-vis the provinces. Debt is growing rapidly, and recentralization is being attempted.



And what, in the meantime, is happening to the danwei? With all the new competition, it is being hollowed out. People who were forced to join a danwei 50 years ago, when Chinese Communism was confidently building a new order, are now being told that they must find their own jobs, buy their own housing, pay for their own medical care, and finance their own retirements. In place of the nicely fitted mosaic of delineated units, economic development is creating new complexities and masses of new and often conflicting interests. Tens of millions of people have been uprooted and cast out of the only community they had ever been allowed to know. No wonder farmers in Jiangxi are rioting, and industrial workers in the northeast are protesting unemployment and the misappropriation of state property.

This human tragedy nicely illustrates one of the basic errors of the Marxist approach to history. According to the Marxist scheme, societies are initially full of contradictions that originate in the economy; but, with each sweep of the dialectic, this complexity is reduced until, at the penultimate stage, what is left is a handful of capitalists embodying one set of interests and a mass of proletarians embodying another. Communist rule is therefore easy to achieve, in theory. Once you flick away the remaining capitalists, you have a society with a single set of interests, millions of homogeneous proletarians all wanting the same thing.

Unfortunately, Marx got the arrows of history backward. Societies do not become more homogeneous and uniform as they advance economically; they become less so. Differences do not disappear; they multiply. The march of progress does not make governance easier; it makes it ever more difficult.

The current Chinese system is based on this Marxist error. The Communists created millions of basic units—danweis—on the assumption that they would share common interests. To the limited extent that they ever did, they no longer do. In the meantime, no provision was made for a genuine administrative or social or moral structure to hold things together. The result is that economic growth today is taking place in an institutional vacuum.



Private enterprise is by far China’s most vigorous sector today. Nevertheless, the party still tries to keep control in its own hands—to the severe detriment of, precisely, the growth that helps maintain the party in power.

One problem is plain old corruption. If an entrepreneur needs a license, he must pay a bribe to get it, which implicates both him and the official who takes it. Since both are in violation of the law, both are also subject to blackmail by others. The resulting environment inhibits enterprise, to say the least.

But there is more. Roughly 90 percent of all publicly traded stocks in China are of entities controlled by the government. Thus, when foreigners (or Chinese) invest, they are usually buying bureaucracies and the bureaucrats who run them—pieces of state enterprises, packaged for sale. Private companies have little access to credit, and there are no solid laws governing their status or rights.

This is why, despite the abundance of entrepreneurial, technical, and managerial skill in China, there are no world-beating private Chinese corporations. Instead, the government continues to waste capital through nonmarket allocations and interventions that will end up distorting the newly emerging information industry just as surely as they distorted the smokestack industries a generation ago.

Nor do the problems finish there. Entrepreneurs are an element of civil society, but the party is not yet reconciled to the existence of a civil society. Although it would obviously be better all around to create objective and clear rules, as well as independent mechanisms like laws and courts, a free press and freedom of worship, under such a scheme there would be no role for the party. And so the party controls the press and stifles religion for the same reason it stifles entrepreneurship: because both economic and social development require space that Communism cannot either provide or accommodate.

How, in the face of these contradictions, does the party propose to maintain its rule? Some Chinese leaders now seem to think this can be done by importing political legitimacy from abroad: through meetings and photo opportunities with foreign heads of state, participation in the United Nations, the WTO, and other international organizations, the Olympics, and so forth. President Jiang Zemin recently spent an hour being interviewed on American TV by Mike Wallace; he has yet to do the same on Chinese television.

The difficulty here is that although you can (up to a point) substitute imported investment and entrepreneurs and managers for your own indigenous banking and private enterprise, you cannot import social and political order from abroad. In neighboring Hong Kong, political candidates go door to door ringing bells. In Taiwan’s recent presidential campaign, one hopeful, James Soong, reportedly visited every one of the island’s roughly 3,000 villages in pursuit of votes (he came in a close second). No one can imagine a similar scene in Communist China, for the simple reason that the government has no firm domestic base and true local politics is nonexistent.

There have been, to be sure, some halfway measures of reform of the type employed by Mikhail Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union. There are local elections in some areas. The press displays a good deal of Gorbachev-style glasnost, or openness. The Beijing Youth Daily looks a lot like the courageous and muckraking Apple Daily in Hong Kong: it carries story after story documenting abuse and malfeasance, and sound investigative journalism well researched and vividly presented. Only one thing is missing: useful generalization and systemic analysis. Each story has the same moral (this is a terrible lapse, someone is not performing his job, we must do better), but as to why the lapses are occurring, or whether they have anything to do with the general structure of government and society—silence. Glasnost exposes (or creates) grievances without either accountability or the means of redress.

In the USSR, Gorbachev hoped that glasnost would lead the party to scrape away the scales of corruption to reveal the good Leninist metal below. What he discovered was that there was no good metal; corruption was the system, and scraping only weakened its key structural elements. The anti-corruption campaign now under way in China faces exactly the same problem. Since corruption is now, in effect, not a blemish on the system but rather the system itself, attacks on it have the effect of destroying the party’s structure and chain of command. Cadres at every level are fearful, and will turn even more completely to their own interests and self-preservation. No one in his right mind is going to behave loyally or altruistically.



Education, economic development, urbanization, communication, increased knowledge of the world—all these forces help to create citizens. Ever since economic change began, China has been manufacturing potential citizens in large numbers, particularly in the coastal cities. But what happens if you have citizens-in-the-making and no democracy for them to participate in? The answer is chronic and irresolvable tension. Out of this situation three possibilities can arise: breakdown, military rule, or genuine political reform.

The first of these is easy to sketch. If present trends continue, we will see a steady rise in social unrest, crime, and corruption, and a steady weakening of the party’s grip. This may be counterbalanced by occasional attempts to lash out, which will undermine economic development, the one thing that gives people hope and the regime respectability. Or we may see attempts to ameliorate things by means of limited, party-controlled political reform. This might release pressure for a while, but it might also, as in the USSR, unleash overwhelmingly powerful social forces. In either case, the eventual result could easily be a partial or all-out struggle for political power of the land we have seen repeatedly in Chinese history.

Which brings us to the prospect of military rule. In today’s official Chinese propaganda, Communist ideology already takes second place to nationalism, and the nationalism being promoted is not a healthy brand of patriotism but a resentful and somewhat xenophobic blend that draws on many of the most unattractive streams of 20th-century politics. In the year 2003, Jiang Zemin will reportedly give up the presidency (his governmental post) and the general secretaryship (his party post) but remain on the central military commission. By so doing, he will make it clear that neither the government nor the party is the ultimate locus of power in today’s China.

A dictatorial and highly nationalistic regime is perhaps the most worrisome possibility of all for China’s neighbors and for the United States. Many of the elements of such a regime are already in place as a result of the massive military-spending program that continues despite weak government finances and pressing needs in other areas. A formal imposition of military rule might come if the party itself begins to split over the question of how to handle growing civil unrest, as has happened numerous times in the past.

No mechanism exists to resolve such problems except to call in the military. How was the Cultural Revolution ended in 1967? By the army. How were Mao’s chosen successors ousted from office in 1976? By the army. How was the crisis of 1989 resolved? By military force against the people—Tiananmen Square—and against “liberal” members of the party. Zhao Ziyang, one such liberal who was then the country’s prime minister, is still detained at home, and his colleagues are in prison or on blacklists. (Even within the party, there is no order.)

A real crisis may arrive if the army is ever called upon to do something like Tiananmen Square again. Soldiers see their mission as defending the country against foreign enemies, not as shooting their unarmed fellow citizens in order to keep the party in power. So one can imagine a day when, instead of doing as instructed, a Chinese general will take over and then go on television, saying in his first breath that “Communism is nonsense, the party is made up of criminals, and we have arrested them” and in his second breath that “we are all Chinese, strong and proud of our homeland. We need order and discipline.”

Of course, any such move, though it might bring unity for a while, suffers from exactly the same defect as Communist authoritarianism: no mechanism except force for resolving disputes. Even more than the current regime, a military regime is likely to re-centralize, a move that classically triggers civil war. Not only would a China of this kind be unstable and a menace to its own people, it would be a menace to all of Asia.



Stable political order will come in China only through constitutional democracy. Though this strikes many people as a farfetched idea, it is nevertheless an idea with roots in China itself. Democracy was promised by the last rulers of the Qing dynasty in 1908, in the form of a constitutional monarchy with an elected, bicameral legislature and a responsible cabinet. With the overthrow of the monarchy in 1911, a republican form of government was, indeed, attempted for a decade or so, though I stress the word form; the reality was military rule.

By 1924, at any rate, the experiment was effectively over, and a Kuomintang-led coalition, which included Communists, was adopting an openly military-nationalist profile. Not coincidentally, this was only two years after Mussolini had established a fascist state in Italy and parliaments across Europe had begun to fold their tents as impatience with debate and compromise led to a general fascination with authoritarian solutions. Unlike in Europe, however, democracy never returned to China, which fell under the dictatorial rule first of the Kuomintang and then of the Communists. Perhaps that is why many observers, Chinese and foreign alike, have dismissed the country’s failed attempt at popular sovereignty as no more than a bad comedy, an embarrassment.

Still, the democratic ideal did not just die. Though never fulfilled, the demand for genuine citizenship and representative government was the dominant theme in 20th-century Chinese politics. Popular pressure forced Chiang Kaishek to convene a national assembly in 1936, and national elections were held in 1948. By the latter date, Mao Zedong had seized the democratic mantle: many Chinese actually expected him to allow more freedom than had Chiang, a fact that contributed greatly to his victory in the civil war.

Mao tacitly acknowledged these hopes by creating, in his first administration, the appearance of democracy while maintaining Communist dominance. Thus, in the provisional government of 1949, two bodies had a small non-Communist majority and two a small Communist majority. Only the People’s Revolutionary Military Council was entirely in the hands of Communists; but that was all that was needed.

That was then, however, and now is now. Is there any chance at all for parliamentary democracy in today’s China? Whenever I voice my own, positive convictions on this score, whether in the U.S. or in Asia, the response, particularly from non-Chinese, is invariably skeptical if not dismissive. Who is going to be in charge, an eminent American scholar asked me on one public occasion. Answering his own question, he assured our audience that it would not be the educated and presumably trustworthy coastal Chinese but—horrors—those millions upon millions of peasants in the countryside. The name of Hitler also comes up frequently, as in: Hitler was elected democratically, too, and look where that led. Another objection is that a democratic China would necessarily be even more nationalistic and warlike than the Communists—or, as Ambassador Chas Freeman argued in a recent debate, “a democratic China would already have attacked Taiwan.”

Clearly, many people who profess sympathy for China distrust the Chinese people. This seeming contradiction may be just the flip side of the stereotype of Chinese homogeneity, pointing to the menace and irrationality—the “Yellow Peril”—that allegedly lurk beneath the surface cohesiveness and that only further underline the need for authoritarian control. But it is a false and condescending view—as, most recently, the contrary examples of Taiwan and Hong Kong show.

Taiwan has been holding real elections for more than a dozen years now. The latest one was a watershed: what had been the opposition party, excluded from power for a half-century, and most of that time by force, won the presidency. Is Taiwan unstable? The fact is that its system is based on legitimate and popularly approved constitutional structures, including checks and balances. No transition of the kind it has just undergone can be completely smooth, but democracy has made Taiwan much more stable and stronger than it was.

In Hong Kong, the obverse situation obtains. There, China ruled out full democracy as a replacement for British colonial rule in 1997, creating instead a jerry-built structure featuring limited elections to a powerless legislature and a chief executive appointed by Beijing at the top, with Hong Kong’s highly competent and hitherto apolitical civil service in the middle. Beijing’s purpose was to ensure “stability,” but the result has been the opposite. The people and their legislators resent their inability to rule themselves; the chief executive worries about his plummeting popularity; and Beijing hamhandedly attempts to instruct the civil service and the Hong Kong people to obey. Beijing will soon have to make a choice: will this “Special Administrative Region” become a place of genuinely democratic self-rule, something of which the people of Hong Kong are certainly capable, or will it become a more open dictatorship, which would spell the beginning of the end of Hong Kong’s golden age?



And what about China itself? If one were to speculate on what a democratically governed China would look like, one model that comes to mind is India, which has a national coalition sitting atop a whole series of local parties. In India, the exigencies of coalition-building act as a discipline on extremists. Farmers, who as in China form the majority of the population, are listened to, and their needs receive a great deal of attention. This means, among other things, that military expenditures are restricted. Because legitimacy comes from the grassroots, India’s leaders travel abroad less than China’s do and campaign more at home. There is absolutely no reason why China could not be as free and democratic and stable as India. It would be in China’s every interest.

Of course, under democracy the non-Chinese areas of the country like Tibet and Xinjiang would probably want genuine autonomy or even independence, just as the non-Russian components of the USSR did when Communism ended there. (Although some have seen this as a disaster for Russia, my own view is that by letting Ukraine and Estonia and Kazakhstan go, Russia freed itself of the impossible task of suppressing them and at the same time created the conditions for genuine friendship.) As for the provinces that have always been Chinese, they, too, might want a degree of autonomy and a federalist constitution, but these peoples do consider themselves parts of a historic nation, and there is no reason to suppose that will change.

Sun Yat-sen once proposed a transitional period of tutelary government for the Chinese, during which new institutions would be installed and the people prepared for them. The Kuomintang always advocated such a system in words, and now, in Taiwan, it has been carried out completely in deed. It makes sense for China, too, where Communist ideology disallows the mention of parliamentary democracy even as a long-term. goal.

Let me suggest a scenario. Visitors to China in the 1980’s well remember the huge and utterly spontaneous farmers’ markets that suddenly appeared in the countryside the moment trade was permitted by the authorities. These markets seemed to have everything on offer: not only chickens and pigs and produce but also fortune-tellers, barbers, dentists, and matchmakers, all arrayed and working smoothly without anyone’s having given, or having been given, instructions.

Political reform does not work like that. Unlike markets, constitutional structures are not self-generating, and they do not grow spontaneously to meet needs. Nor, contrary to what many in the Clinton administration persist in imagining, does political change follow smoothly and inevitably on economic progress. Although the latter does indeed alter society, a transition to democracy can take place only if it has been painstakingly planned years in advance (as it was, for example, in Spain). The notion that a dictatorship can evolve gradually and slowly until a point where, as it were, it closes in on freedom, is fantasy.

What Beijing needs now is a consultative mechanism, bringing together the ablest and most respected people to plan a transition to democracy. In my dreams, I imagine that the reformers now being purged from the Academy of Social Sciences would instead be made advisers to the government, charged with drawing up a plan, like the plan drawn by the Qing dynasty almost a century ago, for a deliberate transition beginning at the local and provincial levels and then, without delay, at the national. At the same time, restrictions on press freedom would be lifted and civic groups and political parties allowed to form. (Such plans were in fact being made in the decade before the Tiananmen massacre.) Then, discussions could be held comparable to those in Taiwan in July 1990 when a committee convened by President Lee Teng-hui honorably retired the remaining members of the legislature who had been elected on the mainland in 1948, and prepared for new elections. In China, this would mean providing honorable exits for the millions of unelected cadres currently holding power, and in particular for the members of the various local, provincial, and national “people’s congresses.”

Is there reason to think the present Chinese regime is preparing anything remotely like what I have outlined? None whatsoever. Does that mean another decade or two of political winter? Frankly, I doubt it. The more likely scenario is one to which I have already alluded: a tear that begins, as it were, at the collar, with the central government becoming paralyzed by disagreements, followed either by a kind of free fall or possibly a military takeover.

To be sure, if China does deconstruct, one need not altogether give up hope for a democratic outcome, but it would occur piecemeal and over a much longer period of time. Although some parts of the country would be devastated by the collapse, and others would likely devolve into autonomous Communist states with their own dictators (like the current states of Central Asia), some could survive and prosper. Guangdong, for example, the single strongest and richest province in China, is now entirely self-sufficient. If you add its GDP to that of Hong Kong and Taiwan, you end up with a figure comparable to the GDP of the rest of China—and that figure is for only 80 million people, not for something over a billion. These 80 million are in effect citizens of three subsets of China that might be called “city-states,” and that could conceivably serve as the nuclei for a democratically reorganized China.



But all that is in the realm of speculation, and perhaps overly hopeful speculation at that. Of far greater relevance today is the role being played by the United States—a role based more on assumptions than on facts and calculated to make things worse rather than better.

Today, in a headlong process that shows little sign of careful thought or prudence, we are well on the way to incorporating Communist China as a structural component of our own economic, political, and military security. We seem to be simultaneously betting on the current regime and recusing ourselves from any consideration of the crisis it will almost certainly face before long. So convinced are we of the wisdom of our approach that we make constant exceptions for Chinese behavior, most notably in the areas of human rights and nuclear nonproliferation, and we pressure our allies to do the same. Overestimating the stability of the Chinese regime, and underestimating the difficulties ahead, we have forgotten that our future in Asia depends less on our relations with China, whatever its complexion, than on how well we get along with our allies, the democratic states and free economies that share with us—and with democrats inside China itself—both values and interests.

China’s transition from Communism is only just beginning, if it has begun at all. If we really mean this transition to go our way instead of spiraling into chaos or another dictatorship, we would do better to remember who we are and what we stand for, and act accordingly.


About the Author

Arthur Waldron is the Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, D.C.

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