Charting a Democratic Future in China

Charting a Democratic Future in China

IS there a path toward a democratic future for China? There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, at least in the near term. But if there is a way forward, then the first steps are being mapped by a group of thinkers who aim to show how Chinese cultural and institutional resources can be deployed as the initial building blocks of a western-style democracy.

This evolving democratic discussion should not be confused with two other strands of democratic discourse in China. The first, a kind of faux “democracy” chatter emitted by the regime, papers over the reality of widespread and brutal repression. A recent example is the “party intellectual” Yu Keping’s mind-boggling assertion that the current crop of Chinese leaders “has consistently emphasized…rule of law and democracy.”

The second kind of democracy talk, associated most prominently with the courageous Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, denounces the regime for its authoritarianism and corruption and for its assaults on human rights and the rule of law. Keeping up pressure on the Communist Party of China (CPC) through this kind of discourse is vital. The more such outspokenness the better, especially since no friend of democracy wants to rule out the possibility, however remote, that China might experience its own “Arab Spring.”

But as the Arab Spring suggests, unless a model of how democracy could actually evolve from indigenous practices and realities exists, any “Chinese Spring” runs the risk of failure. The critical question is, what instruments exist for pushing back against the Party and slowly expanding the scope of democratic participation and human rights?
A focus on such instruments is now emerging in a third type of democratic discourse. Its protagonists seek, as does Liu Xaiobo, a fully democratic China, in which multiple parties compete in free elections and free speech is constitutionally guaranteed. But how is China to get to there from here? And, more particularly, since these democrats have no grand utopian schemes, what are the first concrete and feasible steps? If the regime’s collapse indeed lies in the distant future, Chinese democratic activists will need to continue to develop this third kind of discourse. Alternatively, if a Chinese Spring is around the corner—in a land that has never known a multiparty system or a judicial mode of rights-protection—it will be equally vital to encourage this indigenously rooted discourse. So its central themes are worth examining.

Democratic Participation and Human Rights

How to get there from here? My answer will seem paradoxical. In western-style liberal democracy—I will take the United States and Canada as the examples—the noun “democracy” typically refers to the participation of citizens in their government, while the adjective “liberal” has to do with the rights that limit the government’s power. In North America, democratic participatio...