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Sep 24, 2009

Why does this feel like a sales pitch?

If it looks like a duck...

Deputy Minister Mainland Affairs Council The Executive Yuan Chien-min Chao (趙建民) spoke today in his role as a Professor of political science at a conference titled, The establishment of Chinese Communist rule and sixty years of separate administration across the Taiwan strait.

(Just so you know, he'll also be at this upcoming conference [pdf] on Grassroots Democracy and Local Governance in China in early November if you want to see him).

The professor argued that the old label of party-state system (黨國體制) is an inaccurate description of China, and was not even accurate under Mao, when it was more of a one-man authoritarian dictatorship. Chao also said while some scholars think "post-party-state system" (
後黨國體制) is a good label, the label ignores the role of the social and political changes in China. Today, Chao argues, now that the market economy is the driving factor in political decision making, China is seeing many of the kind of incidents like Taiwan's "Formosa Incident" and an increase in social movements. Why then can't we label China as a country in the early stages of democratic development?

I'm going to put aside for the moment that Chao seems to be selling me something. I'll just address his arguments. I agree that China shows some of the same symptoms of a society crying out for greater democracy, but there are no signs that CCP leadership intends to ever allow a multi-party system or a truly democratic society, and the weak civil society in China means there are no signs that a collapsed CCP would be replaced with anything but the PLA;. In contrast, while the KMT leadership was reluctant to allow democratic changes, it was always committed to that transition in principle.

You may want to know how I reach this conclusion. First, as has been well-documented within The First Chinese Democracy: Political Life in the Republic of China on Taiwan (Chao and Myers), by the time of the Formosa Incident, the KMT was regularly losing elections at multiple levels to independents. To the KMT's credit, it had for years allowed somewhat free local elections -- plenty of vote buying on all sides, but ballot box stuffing was not as serious a problem, and local rivals were more likely to be co-opted than threatened -- and so although an organized opposition party was still completely out of the question for the KMT leadership, and although there was constant cracking down on political dissidents, the momentum for reform had been building for sometime (it took Lee Teng-hui's determination to drag the rest of the KMT elite into ending one party rule).

Similarly, as Chao and Myers document, while the KMT leadership was not willing to tolerate an opposition party at that time, it remained rhetorically committed to an eventual Western-style, multi-party democracy. Though the KMT claimed that Taiwan was not ready for such a transition yet, eventually, it would be. And as David blogged, the Wild Lily protest movement was able to push the country significantly in that directly in 1990.

That's a bit of an overview on Taiwan; what about China? While China has made some breakthroughs at creating real competition at the village chief level (He 2003 [PDF]), though these officials have little control beyond the village and the party remains strictly authoritarian at the national level. Unlike the Wild Lily movement, the Tiananmen Square protests ended in tragedy.

Further, the CCP has no rhetorical commitments to any multi-party system; instead, the party promotes "Intra-party democracy," basically a 'harmonious' consultative process that hopes to bring in innovative ideas and heed local demands, but without the risk of a transition of power. Chinese scholars remain committed to the one-party state. And the party continues to promote its one-party democracy on its own news sites.

If there is to be real hope that China will experience a democratic transition, a few pre-conditions must be met: a stronger civil society to help form the skeleton outline of a capable opposition, a relaxation on crushing censorship rules, perhaps greater autonomy in the autonomous zones (to relax tensions there and fears that democracy will lead to the break-up of the country), and most importantly of all, willingness at the CCP leadership center to accept the prospect of losing power.

So far, the CCP shows no signs of relaxing its control over China, nor in fact of wanting anything but greater power -- over Taiwan, the Spratly Islands, Aranchul Pradesh, the Senkaku Islands... and who knows what would be next.

Deputy Minister Chao, I wish you were right. I hope I'm delusional and you're right. But I think we both know better. China shows no signs of heading toward a Taiwan-inspired path to a democratic transition.


Tommy said...

The sales pitch also overlooks the fact that most of the incidents that happen in China are not incited by people desiring a greater say in determining their future but by people requesting more fairness on the part of local business interests and politicians. Protests are not about giving the people power in a new system but about gaining attention for causes that might force higher officials to pay attention to a situation and pass judgement in their favor.

Until Chinese anger is directed at the central government, any hope for a transition to anything more democratic than mob rule will just be a dream. The central government will not change its ossified political system except under pressure.

Ben Goren said...

Excellent piece Agu, couldn't agree more. I also think Thomas makes very good points. One more needs to be made I think. Even if another party was allowed, it is likely that, in order for it to compete, it would likely have to accept many of the CCP core objectives as a given eg Tibet, Turkestan and Taiwan. After years and years of propaganda from the CCP, public opinion on a range of issues is likely to be ossified and very difficult to challenge, even with evidence. Finally, a democratic system doesn't prevent countries from going to war over territories they perceive as their own. There's no guarantee that democracy would make Taiwan safer for example. This is why I think the 'bring democracy to China' argument is a bit of a McGuffin and, frankly, unrealistic.

阿牛 said...

With you both.

I actually have a good deal of sympathy with the main anti-democracy arguments in China, namely that it could fracture the country, derail economic development or turn into civil war/anarchy. These are not insane or unrealistic possibilities. So I understand the hesitation from both the CCP and the new urban "winners" in China's economy.

At the same time, I do believe people democracy is the "way to go," and a fundamental right. And I have no sympathy for the CCP's constant abuses of basic human rights.

So for me, I'd love to see China develop a strong democracy on its own, but I do not expect that to happen, nor do I wish for the reforms to go badly.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on leadership. It should be very much helpfull.

Karim - Mind Power