Commentary Magazine

Democracy in China

To the Editor:

I found Arthur Waldron’s “A Free and Democratic China?” [November 2000] to be one of the most insightful articles I have read on the prospects for China’s political development. Yet the time I have spent in Chinese villages and cities talking informally to farmers and rural migrants leads me to disagree with some of his points.

Mr. Waldron argues that the claim to legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is based on an implicit agreement with the Chinese people: the CCP promises ever greater economic prosperity but in return expects domestic peace. This, he suggests, is a rather fragile foundation, being subject both to the business cycle and the economy’s long-term growth. Although basically accurate, this view needs refinement.

Many Western scholars seem unaware of the extent to which the CCP has in fact lived up to its end of the bargain. Whereas a typical developing country might have a landless rural population of 25 or 30 percent, today there are no peasants in China who are landless by choice. Not only is land guaranteed for all, but a relatively egalitarian distribution is maintained as well. This is an important expectation of Chinese farmers, and when it is violated, protest almost always follows. (Chinese fanners completely accept income differentials that they perceive to be based on effort or talent, but those based on unequal access to the village’s resources are viewed with great enmity.)

The CCP has also fulfilled its historical agreement with the peasants by encouraging rural industrialization, which has been the engine of recent rapid growth. Crucially, the proceeds have been steered in such a way as to benefit the broader community rather than just a few owners. This is accomplished sometimes through village ownership of the factories but most often by subcontracting to private entrepreneurs who agree to meet certain community goals, like creating greater job opportunities for villagers.

On the occasions when the CCP has violated the expectations of the peasants, the government has paid for it with sharply declining legitimacy. The most obvious example of this was the Great Leap Forward. In the collectivization campaign of 1955-56, the CCP was careful to argue that its policy would bring material benefits, and initially, this proved true. But after one year, incomes fell, and the peasants withdrew support for the communes. The party responded, despite mass objections, by pushing ultraradical policies; a tragic and avoidable famine ensued.

The CCP would have been overthrown in late 1960 or 1961 if a drastic reversal had not taken place. The fanatics were dismissed, food was forthcoming, humble apologies were made, rural markets were opened up, private plots restored, and the collectives were made smaller and more autonomous. In 1968-70, and briefly in 1975-76, radical policies were trotted out again, causing incomes to drop. And, again, after each push, apologies and concessions were made, and legitimacy was restored.

Today, there are areas in rural China where corruption and inequality are rampant, farm incomes are stagnant, taxes are out of control, and the fabric of the rural community is ripping at the seams. In these areas, one finds open calls of “down with the CCP,” physical attacks on officials, vandalism of government offices, and protests. Still, I would guess the CCP enjoys legitimacy in about 70 percent of rural China. Though it certainly has reason for alarm—there are millions of very angry peasants—there are also many villages where the system is working well and meeting expectations.

As Mr. Waldron notes, some observers believe that democracy in China would be disastrous because the ignorant, backward peasants would run the show. This is the opposite of my own view: democracy is not really possible in China, I believe, because the gap in sophistication and resources means that intellectuals, Hong Kong bankers, and the Mercedes-driving Shanghai elite would hold sway in a parliament. Not feeling any historical obligation to the peasants, these elites would ignore their interests. The wealthy coastal provinces would come to dominate the other areas, and the current redistribution of wealth for development projects in inland areas would cease. The result would be either misery or another revolution.

Finally, Mr. Waldron is correct to point to the historic similarities between China and India. Both gained independence from foreign overlordship in the 1940’s, both were then at similar levels of development, and both have comparable populations and endowments of natural resources. In 1949, the average lifespan in both countries was 35, yet currently it is 71 for China and 65 for India.

It is true that India displays a greater respect for civil rights; but China’s pro-peasant dictatorship has advantages too. Even though, at the national level, democracy is infinitely more developed in India, in rural China local democracy is arguably more meaningful. In local elections in India, the land-owning elite dominates village government and village cooperative organizations, steering benefits toward themselves and their friends. This is not the case in most Chinese villages.

Also, whereas in India the treatment of women is appalling—a lack of political rights, the sale of brides, severe physical abuse, prostitution, and frequent kidnapping—the Chinese government uses a certain amount of coercive power to ensure decent treatment for rural women.

Brian K. Turner
Jacksonville, Florida



Arthur Waldron writes:

I thank Brian K. Turner for his most welcome comments. I am reminded of the saying of a Polish professor of economics in the 1970’s: “Communism is a system that bravely overcomes problems that would not exist under other systems.” We disagree, I think, because Mr. Turner sees the Communist dictatorship as a response to problems of poverty, unequal distribution, cruelty to women, and so forth, while I see it as a primary cause.

Why is China’s countryside today still so poor? The answer is: long-standing Communist policies of confiscating rural resources to support urban and heavy industrial development. This answer is at odds with conventional images of the “peasant revolution” in China, but it is nevertheless correct, and it provides the indispensable background for understanding the present situation.

From the 1950’s on, Beijing sponsored heavy industrialization and paid for it by using the power of the dictatorship to confiscate food from the countryside. The collectivization campaigns of the early 1950’s were not about improving rural life. They were about getting hold of grain—which farmers would not willingly surrender except in exchange for goods they wanted. Since those were unavailable, police power was used to impose plantation-style cultivation and group harvesting, with the harvest—and this is the key point—not taken home by the farmers but rather stored in a locked, party-controlled warehouse from which it could be used to feed factory workers. Farmers were given ration tickets, for which they received as much or as little food as the local authorities chose.

Thus the farmers were systematically impoverished (while, tragically, most of the heavy industrial investment turned into the loss-making state-owned enterprises the government is now trying to unload), and one result, mentioned by Mr. Turner himself, was the catastrophic man-made famine from 1959-62 in which tens of millions died.

Today things are different—but farmers still get the short end of the stick. Central harvesting and central storage of grain were abolished in the 1970’s, and the old commune warehouses are now empty. But the rules and the investment flows are still stacked. Though rental and lease of land by individual farmers are now the rule, they cannot own land and are thus without the opportunity to build up a family farm. Contrary to what Mr. Turner says, rural industry is also weak, and rural banks mostly insolvent (along with the rest of China’s banking system), credit overwhelmingly going to the pet projects of the leadership (the Three Gorges dam, showplace urban developments like Shanghai’s Pudong district, weapons purchases, and so forth). Thus the rural-urban gap grows. Tens of millions of poor farm families have migrated to the big cities, where they have no legal status and no rights but find plenty of work and a better standard of living. From among those landless migrants come the vast majority of victims of the crimes of kidnapping, sale of women, forced prostitution, and the like.

Despite all this, things are undoubtedly better today than they were twenty years ago, even for poor farmers. The party has made some changes that have helped—though often the change was as simple as reversing the policy that had created the problem initially. But there is one big change it refuses to make—to let the farmers, the urban poor, and everyone else in China participate in decision-making through democracy.

Mr. Turner argues that democracy would mean “intellectuals, Hong Kong bankers, and the Mercedes-driving Shanghai elite” holding sway in a parliament. I see things the other way around. Today the people Mr. Turner is talking about already dominate government: Jiang Zemin and his Shanghai faction run the Chinese government for their own interests; the earlier elite, around Mao, did the same, from (relatively) prosperous Beijing, which they rarely left. The problem originated with the dictatorship and can only be ended through democratic elections that will, given the size of the rural population, put into parliament a powerful majority beholden to rural voters. Indian politicians regularly visit the most remote areas, not (like Chinese officials) to “inspect,” but to ask for votes. This makes all the difference.

It seems to me that Mr. Turner concedes this point when he notes that the great famine was caused by insane agricultural policies, pushed by the party “despite mass objections.” Would he agree that few if any of those tens of millions of farmers would have starved to death had they been voters? To me the lesson is clear.


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