Do the Chinese need democracy?

Commentator Wei Da notes that democracy seems to be the best system to ensure distribution of power, with the people in charge rather than an individual with total authority. Furthermore, suppressing the rule of law with political motives can end up backfiring.
Supporters at an election night rally outside the Democratic Progressive Party's headquarters during the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan, on 13 January 2024. (An Rong Xu/Bloomberg)
Supporters at an election night rally outside the Democratic Progressive Party's headquarters during the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan, on 13 January 2024. (An Rong Xu/Bloomberg)

Taiwan’s 2024 presidential elections have come to a close, with democracy shining brightly. However, across the Taiwan Strait, the situation in mainland China has always had its unique “characteristics”.

In just 40 years since reform and opening up, China has emerged from poverty to become the world’s second largest economy. Yet in the 183 years since China moved into the modern era in 1840, there is one peak of modern civilisation that it has not reached. It has been beaten every time despite persistent efforts — that summit is democracy.

Considering today’s world and civilisation, few individuals and countries would dare to openly oppose democracy. However, democracy cannot be just an ostensible cover. In other words, democracy is not only about words but also actions. For example, the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” may sound appealing, but as to whether democracy is actually implemented in the country and its systems, the answer is a clear and resounding no; its actions run counter to democracy.

Multi-party systems and pluralistic politics

In terms of implementation, there are at least three major criteria to determine the authenticity of a democracy, and if the people are truly in charge.

First, whether ordinary citizens can freely and legally cast their votes to elect or remove key leaders at the national and local levels. The direct election of leaders by individual vote is a significant benchmark of democracy, and one of the most fundamental rights in a modern civil society. Any attempt to deprive ordinary citizens of the right to vote for their leaders, under any pretext, is a clear sign of non-democratic and anti-democratic behaviour.

The various peasant uprisings in ancient China only led to dynastic changes without the progressiveness that drives historical advancement, because in fact all that happened was the replacement of the previous absolute authority with a new one...

Second, an effective democratic system must be multi-party and pluralistic, because only through multi-party and pluralistic contests for the mandate to rule can there be a true reflection of different political demands and positions, while giving voters highly competitive political choices that reflect and represent diverse interests.

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein previously held regular elections while he was in power, but each time he was the only candidate on the ballot. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is a blatant and shameless manipulation of elections and public opinion.

saddam
A torn poster depicting late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein hangs on a wall in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on 7 November  2023. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP)

Third, real democratic freedom must involve a system of checks and balances, and an independent rule of law. In recognising the necessity of power and authority, modern civilisation must also effectively restrain the abuse and corruption of the power to rule. The law cannot succumb to power; everyone is equal before the law, as absolute power leads to absolute corruption. 

The various peasant uprisings in ancient China only led to dynastic changes without the progressiveness that drives historical advancement, because in fact all that happened was the replacement of the previous absolute authority with a new one, which was tantamount to inheriting and promoting corrupt genes of power, rather than eliminating them.

Marxist-Leninist socialism versus Western-style democracy

In the past 183 years, why has the fate of democracy, freedom and the rule of law been so tumultuous and challenging in this land called China? Despite the explicit call for the era of “democracy and science” during the May Fourth Movement of 1919, some say that the Chinese, having walked the path of autocracy for more than 2,500 years, are not fit to wear the shoes of democracy.

Taiwan’s democracy has lived up to expectations, marking a victorious start for modern civilisation in the new year of 2024. Who says Asians and Chinese people are not suited for democracy?

Does the term “Chinese” here include the people of Taiwan? Many international media reports suggest that Taiwan’s democratic election processes and procedural management are now even better and more effective than the US. Taiwan’s democracy has lived up to expectations, marking a victorious start for modern civilisation in the new year of 2024. Who says Asians and Chinese people are not suited for democracy?

Some people also believe that Chinese people lack religiosity and faith, so when faced with the temptations of secular power, wealth and resources, they often waver and become insatiable — one example is Yuan Shikai declaring himself emperor.

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People are seen at a subway station in Beijing on 17 January 2024. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)

However, this focuses too much on individual qualities and not on the system, which makes it biased. The progress and success of democracy in Taiwan once again proves that systems trump individuals; a good system can correct and curb the bad deeds and weaknesses of human nature, while a bad system can even corrupt good individuals. Chinese culture does not lack the good traditions and role models of self-cultivation, but the key lies in strengthening the institutional development of modern democracy and the rule of law.

Yet others believe that modern civilisation and democratic rule are products of capitalist society and systems, and that Marxist-Leninist socialism is superior to capitalism, and so China does not need Western-style democracy. Due to space constraints, I will not compare the various ideologies, but it must be made clear that so-called Western-style democracy is nothing more than a geographical label created by some individuals to denigrate and resist the universal advancement of democracy.

Such ideas can be seriously misleading, such as when someone thinks that purchasing and using a Huawei smartphone is “patriotic”. The fact is, from product concept and core technology to main applications, the Huawei smartphone draws on inventions, research and manufacturing from the US and the West. Is that not the truth?

What is extreme politics?

Of course, the main characteristics of democracy are openness and acceptance. A country can decide on its own how to learn from and implement democracy. In essence, democracy remains a method to achieve the core goals of modern civilisation. If there is a way that is equally or even more effective than democracy, why not embrace it? 

The core goal of modern civilisation is to avoid and prevent extreme politics, which is the root of all evils. Moderation, harmony and righteousness are the right path for modern civilisation and politics, and so far democracy is the most effective method and system created and developed by human civilisation to avoid and prevent extreme politics.

Over the years, Chinese society has often vacillated between the extremes of “absolute power” and “anarchy without government”.

What is extreme politics? For example, China’s feudal imperial system for over two thousand years, from Qin Shihuang to Empress Dowager Cixi, was mostly about extreme politics — politics that was closed, authoritarian, oppressive and dictatorial. As for the occasional enlightened monarchs who were politically astute and achieved prosperity, that was entirely due to luck.

And what does “enlightened” mean? It means being open-minded, wise and unbiased. This has almost never been seen in Chinese history because the country’s politics has always lacked robust institutional guarantees for enlightened politics, while human governance is completely unreliable.

cixi
An official photographic portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi, aged around 55 years, circa 1890. (Wikimedia)

One more major reason why it has been a struggle to achieve democracy in China is that there have been no modern breakthroughs in Chinese cultural perspectives on power.

Over the years, Chinese society has often vacillated between the extremes of “absolute power” and “anarchy without government”. The former is an attempt to lead and control everything, while the latter is a desire for lawlessness. This dichotomy is reflected in the classical novel Water Margin, in terms of enticing the rebels to surrender or forcing them to Mount Liang, meaning to take a desperate stand.

This is in stark contrast to the Magna Carta movement during the same period in 13th-century England. At that time, the English already understood that rational political goals were not about eliminating or monopolising power, but restricting and sharing it. This called for adherence to contractual agreements and led to the Magna Carta, to effectively prevent extreme politics and authoritarian dictatorship, marking the beginning of democratic politics.

Anyone who suppresses and undermines democracy, freedom and the rule of law will inevitably be consumed by the evil consequences they create.

Rights and dignity for all

Finally, allow me to share an anecdote. In 2011, under the leadership of its party secretary and director of public security, Chongqing launched a campaign of “upholding communism and clamping down on illegal activities” (唱红打黑). In an instant, rule of law was overtaken by a fervent political movement, with obvious wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice. 

He Weifang, then a legal academic with Peking University, boldly wrote an open letter to the director of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau, urging him to abide by the law and judicial procedures, and not to take arbitrary action. In the open letter, He noted that upholding legal authority and procedure is not only to protect the rights and dignity of ordinary citizens, but also that of those in power, and that no one would be safe without an independent judiciary. What happened to people like Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai are lessons.

In the end, unfortunately, what Professor He said came to pass. Just two years later, the former party secretary and director of public security in Chongqing, who had so vigorously run the campaign, were prosecuted and charged as criminals. It was the greatest irony and tragedy to see both of them in court, pleading for their own rights of defence to be respected. Anyone who suppresses and undermines democracy, freedom and the rule of law will inevitably be consumed by the evil consequences they create.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "现代社会的活法——民主".

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