Thoughts on Democracy in China

Americans concerned about China's rise routinely point to China's lack of freedom and democracy as a major obstacle in her drive to become a global superpower.

The argument goes that China will always play second fiddle to the United States as long as it still has a government that represses and censors its people and press. People think that Chinese citizens have hardly any political freedom, and by virtue of the fact that the Communist Party is an authoritarian political party, it must necessarily lie closer to the “evil” end of the good-evil moral spectrum.

Chinese citizens cannot vote (except in certain local elections, and even then, candidates must be members of the party). The media is heavily controlled by the government. Protests are illegal. No one really openly questions the legitimacy of one-party rule.

In contrast, American citizens enjoy an unparalleled degree of freedom. In the American participatory democratic process, there are so many elections to vote in that very often, many simply choose to abstain. Newspapers regularly run articles critical of the government. No one bats an eyelid when people gather to protest or demonstrate.

But China is more free than you might think. The regular Chinese citizen does not feel oppressed or fearful, as I've gathered during the course of my project in Beijing. Of course, whether or not this is due to all the “conditioning” or “brainwashing” is debatable (obviously, whether people actually believe propaganda is also another debate on its own). But the truth is that things are changing very quickly, thanks to the Internet.

There is no doubt that the average Chinese citizen today enjoys far more freedom than his or her parents did when they were growing up. Some things are still off-limits, like calling for the end of one-party rule, but limits are increasingly being pushed.

Weibo, similar to Twitter in America, is one avenue in which this is happening. Things happen too fast to regulate effectively, and there are numerous cases in which popular pressure has been effective in forcing change. There are currently over 500 million Internet users in China, and the voice of the netizens can be deafening at times.

In addition, the press in China is not a merely lame mouthpiece of the communist party. There are essays critical of government policies, like a sharply critical one of the one-child policy I read in a major national magazine. Another article that comes to my mind is one I read in my in-flight magazine on a domestic Chinese airline, viciously criticizing the government's lack of transparency in its data on air pollution levels. Corruption is another area that receives a lot of attention. One radio program I was listening to in a taxi allowed listeners to call in to highlight cases of abuses by traffic enforcement officials at the local level, with the promise that the radio station would help by drawing attention to these corrupt practices and getting high-level officials to intervene. Social issues also draw attention, and reporters seem to like running investigative journalism pieces on how workers are being treated unfairly, or how food safety is not ensured at some food processing plants.

The recent Taiwanese Presidential elections also attracted widespread attention across the strait in China. I could feel this as well in China. Whenever the topic of the Taiwanese election came up, it seemed that people's ears would perk up, and they would immediately take a greater interest in the conversation. This was across all ages, from the young to the old. I felt that there was a very strong sense of interest in the election, obviously because the way Taiwan votes will determine cross-strait relations for the next four years. But more importantly, I also felt a very strong sense of envy. Democracy is such that when you are denied the chance to participate, you will feel even more drawn to it – and indeed, mainland Chinese were envious that democracy could function so well in a sizable Chinese community. It is true that when people are no longer worried about a roof over their heads or food to fill their stomachs, they will start to think about other needs, such as democracy.

However, by itself, the Communist Party is probably not as evil as Western media has portrayed it to be. I'm not saying that I approve of its one-party rule, or the multiple transgressions that it has committed in the past and still continues to commit today. But if you look at what the party has been up to in recent years, you can't help but acknowledge that this is a party that is still very much in line with what its country wants.

Firstly, I'd argue that there is far more attention to the plight of the poor than in America. As with any country experiencing rapid economic growth, the income gap has severely widened in the past few decades in China. But the government seems committed to helping the poor, and is rolling out many measures to ensure that the poor also benefits from China's sizzling growth. This may be because of the Communist Party's roots as a party that evolved from the grassroots and rode its way to national prominence with a distinct socialist agenda, whereas in America the debate often centers on whether the poor are responsible for their own plight and if they should be the ones helping themselves instead.

Secondly, the party has been responsible for the uninterrupted economic growth enjoyed by China since 1979. Whether this would not happen in a multi-party democracy is debatable, of course, but it is hard to think of any other way 9.9% average growth per annum could be replicated. This growth has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty and created a nation that's very optimistic about the promise the future holds and their country's place in the world, a sentiment that is lacking in the West. One might argue that democracy is of little use if it is in limbo and people are worried about their future. One Chinese person I've met has even gone to the extent of defending the government's decision during the Tiananmen Square incident. He argued that the government's actions were right because China would fragment and be thrown severely off-course if the Communist Party had been brought down in 1989. He drew a contrast with Russia and Eastern Europe, and said that the Chinese today enjoy a far higher quality of life than people in supposedly-free Eastern Europe enjoy, a point I found hard to rebut even though I did not agree with his view that the bloody intervention in the Tiananmen incident was necessary.