Local democracy in China (Special finals week edition)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:31 am

On his recent trip to Washington Hu Jintao was asked about democracy in China. To the surprise of some observers he did not immediately grow horns and start eating babies on stage, but rather gave the standard rather vague position that “democracy” is hard to define, but that a culturally appropriate form of democracy is clearly in China’s future. This is not surprising to anyone who has been following China’s rhetoric on this, and while it is easy and appropriate to mock things like last Fall’s White Paper on democracy and China as attempts to obscure the government’s position and placate foreign critics, I think it is pretty clear the “democracy” does mean something to a lot of people in the Chinese government, and that they are in favor of it.

It is pretty common knowledge that China now has democratic elections at the village level, however problematic they sometimes are. From www.chinaelections.org I find this story about selection of officials for province-wide deputy slots in Jiangsu. It’s not democracy, although ”the nomination and voting process should be based on the principle of openness, equality, legality, and democratic centralism.” The government has vetted candidates for educational level and experience, then there is a debate section, where the candidates are whittled down to two, and then there is an election.

I find the debate section the most interesting, as

Each candidate had to make a 10-minute speech on the topic of “how to make policies and boost economic development along the Changjiang River“, which required using Jiangsu province as an example.

It looks as if these speeches were pretty important, as they seem to have been one of the things that went into the process of narrowing the number of candidates. When Sun Yat-sen planned his Five-Power Constitution he included an Examination Yuan (考試院) which had the duty of selecting people for government office. This was obviously influenced by the old examination system, and apparently that influence is still around today. Although from the Song on it was the written exam that mattered most there is also a long history of oral exams, and that question sound exactly like one of the policy questions on the exams. The Jiangsu thing does not seem to be a central initiative, so apparently someone in Jiangsu came up with this one. If you are in the mood to be hopeful about these things it looks like a balancing of ideas of democratic legitimacy and civil service professionalism.

7 responses to “Local democracy in China (Special finals week edition)”

  1. Sam says:

    Of course, if you are in the mood to be somewhat less than hopeful, look at what happened last year, and again last month, in Taishi, Guangdong where local elections were subverted. As for “democracy,” Chinese socialist rhetoric has always been democratic. Remember one of Mao’s great inventions: The People’s Democratic Dictatorship. Democratic Dictatorship, something a Leninist can love….

  2. Alan Baumler says:

    Yes, one can take a less hopeful view, but I tend to be an optimistic sort. Do you really see no difference between Maoism and China’s current political system? I think Hu Jintao is entirely correct in saying that China is a lot more democratic and Chinese people more free than they were in 1976. I also think Chinese people are likely to be even more free in 2026, although I doubt the CCP will be able to manage the changes that are going to happen as effectively as they think. One of the things that frustrates me about a lot of coverage of China and Chinese affairs is that a lot of it seems to be base on the assumption that the only things China can be are Maoist and American. I think it’s pretty obvious that China today is neither, and that the job of scholarship is to try and figure out what it is. Taishi was and is a bad situation but it’s not the only place to have had elections.

  3. I’m continually struck by the degree to which Sun Yatsen’s vision of China continues to reverberate, from the Three Gorges project to the idea of dictatorial tutelage followed by gradual democratization (more advanced in the more Nationalist Taiwan, of course)…..

  4. Sam Crane says:

    Of course I agree that China in 2006 is quite different than China in 1976. People do have more freedom, especially in cultural expression and economic life. But politically – again, while not as ideologically tight as 1976 – the system remains, though in new form, fundamentally authoritarian and unjust. OK, more unjust than many others (if we assume some element of injustice everywhere). Taishi is far from an isolated incident. The number of demonstrations and protests, many centering on compaints about local corruption and land grabs, are, by the government’s own numbers, growing rapidly. Some elections may well bring about village-level change, but many are manipulated and rigged. The judiciary is basically an arm of the party. Without any political or legal check, administrative corruption has intensified in recent years. In sum, while I am not really the most pessimistic of critics – reform-era China has muddled through in spite of growing problems – neither do I agree that Chinese politics today can be characterized as “a balancing of ideas of democratic legitimacy and civil service professionalism.” Democratization requires a choice on the part of power holders to countenance the possibility of losing their power. I see no evidence that the leadership of the CCP is near to that kind of decision.

  5. Alan Baumler says:


    I certainly agree that China today is an authoritarian country, but I’m not sure I agree that “Democratization requires a choice on the part of power holders to countenance the possibility of losing their power.” The KMT in Taiwan thought they would be able to stage-manage the appearance of democracy without giving up power, but they turned out to be wrong, as were the authoritarians in South Korea. Yes, it helps to have a pro-democracy authoritarian in power, like Chiang Ching-kuo, and bad to have someone who is as willing to send in the tanks as Deng Xiaoping, but I’m not sure how much it matters in the (very) long run. Do you buy the whole Lee Guanyu line that permanent authoritarian rule is possible in a modern developed society? As I said I’m optimistic because while Hu Jintao may be in power primarily because of his party position, provincial-level leaders in Jiangsu are now being chosen in part democratically and in part because of their professional qualifications. Is there corruption and cronyism in the Jiangsu selection system? Almost certainly. Are there people in the Jiangsu system who are cynically assuming they can look democratic but never yield real power? No doubt, but I suspect they are wrong. Even now Chinese government seems more populist than authoritarian. I’m certainly not saying that China is on an inevitable path to democracy. Hu seems to favor “some democracy” on instrumentalist grounds, it helps to keep people happy and possibly to make local power-holders less secure, but it is not a good thing in itself. It does provide another venue for creating political legitimacy outside the party, however, and while they may think they can close it down any time they want, I suspect they are wrong.

  6. Sam Crane says:


    As a person trained in political science, I, too, am enamored of structural theories that suggest large historical forces which push societies and polities in certain directions. But in the short run – which may matter more than the (very) long run when…(fill in Keynes’s line here) – I think it very much does matter how power holders wield their power. June 4th was a choice, a choice by specific individuals in power, to kill people on a large scale. That matters a great deal, both for the people killed and for the future prospects of political change in China. I agree with you that, perhaps, power holders do not have to absolutely accept the possibility of their own loss of power, but they must be willing to accept a significant political change and challenge to their power: in the form of an opposition party. An opposition party is impossible in Jiangsu or anywhere else in the PRC at present. Yes, Li Yuanchao, party head of Jiangsu, may well be on the enlightened end of what is possible in Chinese politics today. Hu Yaobang was on the enlightened end in 1986 and that did not save him. Finally, please note two things. First, one element of the quote you use from China Elections site mentions “democratic centralism.” In practice that often allows for assertions of centralism (cue Lei Feng singing the Four Cardinal Principles, which have never been formally rescinded) over democracy. And second, going back to that original story, it states:”(non-communist candidates must have worked as deputy director for at least 4 years)” I would bet a dollar that most cadres at the level of “deputy director” are, in fact, party members; so, the opening here for non-Party people may be very narrow indeed. And really finally, I do agree that all of this is a good sign: better to publicly vet candidates than not. But it is hard to get up one’s hopes too high when it comes to the chances for genuine political liberalization in China.

  7. J Chan says:

    ‘China today is an authoritarian country’

    Which country in the world is not authoritarian? There are also countries in the world which want to exert and impose their authority outside of their national boundaries. Without exercising authority, it is not possible to rule a country. The alternative is anarchy, and do we really want that?

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