The Next Big Thing: Chinese Democracy

Posted by Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Aug. 27 – In this brave, new post-Beijing Olympics world, it has become a relatively common pastime to imagine what next, especially as the hosting of the Olympics has often been a precursor to change in the country holding the event.

In China, the die has already been cast, and it is every Western political commentator’s favorite word, democracy. For those of you possibly surprised to see such a word on a China site, I can assure you China has moved on. There is indeed democratic movement in China. Premier Wen Jiabao believes that it is the single most interesting aspect of modern China today. Indeed, the National Reform and Development Commission have a specific research division looking into the impact of democracy on Chinese society.

Things have indeed progressed. Admittedly, when I first stepped back on Chinese soil a year after Tianamen Square, people were on guard and there were instructions not to even mention the D-word. Guidebooks of the time even recommended against it. Yet that was nearly 20 years ago. Democracy is as much a Chinese word as any other and it gets debated at the highest levels. It’s not a dirty word in China any more. Those who suggest otherwise are 20 years out of step. The D word is back in vogue.

Yet when it comes to democracy in China, we must have a look at what interests the government about it, and indeed how it has evolved in the West, and especially in the United States and Great Britain. Winston Churchill stated that democracy was “Not a particularly good system, but the best of a bad bunch.” One man one vote? Think again. Britain is not fully democratic. Although the nation holds general elections, votes passed by members of Parliament to enact new legislation have to pass through the House of Lords—an unelected body—before passing into law. This is hardly democratic. But there is a reason for this, democracy can become subverted, and a run-away leader—such as Hitler was in the 1930s—can wreak enormous damage. Britain’s House of Lords acts as a safety valve to ensure such a situation would not occur in the UK. Yet it’s not entirely democratic either. So who are we to lecture the Chinese?

The prevailing issue of government is essentially the management and welfare of the people under its charge. In this regard, China has literally a huge demographics problem—how do you manage 1.3 billion people?

Britain (61 million, less than the size of Guangdong province) has some advantages here. So does the United States with 306 million. For every U.S. citizen then, there are five Chinese, and or every British subject, twenty-one. So the Chinese management of its population inevitably has to be different just to cope with the sheer volume of people. In this regard, that inevitably means having to sacrifice some individual liberties. That’s not the machinations of a power-obsessed government, that’s just logistics. As we saw during the Olympics, that mass training and education of the movement of people can have spectacular results. China’s conundrum here is that in order to manage such a large population, you have to exert more control. That means having to wield more power. It isn’t just a political question; it’s a managerial one as well.

So what of democracy? Hu Jintao, the Chinese presidents, has personally stated that China will take steps along this route. In fact, it already has. Elections are held at village collective level, admittedly the lowest form of government, and have been the past five years. To reverse the procedure, and instill democracy at the highest level first would not make sense. With such a large population, there would be no support at the grass roots level. The last time China tried that, the end result was civil war. Following the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925 when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek came to power as the “voice of democracy,” he found himself a leader without a political structure in place with national support. China collapsed and descended into a chaos that was only overcome when the communists under Mao—having secured a power base first—came to power.

However, a one-party State, as China is now, also has problems. Government interference in commerce, much the bane of communism, is problematic, which is why some of the recent legislation (see here and here) has been put in place to divorce state from business and to encourage private enterprise. It’ll take awhile, but steps are being taken. China recognizes that it cannot produce the next level of businessmen able to compete effectively on global markets without them. An educational problem China has with its commercial sector is that many of the high flyers are used to playing the China market, where connections and playing the system, rather than true commercial integrity and intelligence win the day. That has to change if Chinese companies, including its State-owned enterprises, are to develop as serious international players. In this regards, India has the current advantage. Most major, privately funded M&A deals over the past two years involving Asian and international business were Indian. With an independent legal system in place to reward talent and punish criminal activity, Indian businessmen have been better equipped than their Chinese counterparts when it comes to building global conglomerates. To develop an internationally competitive business arena then, China needs to be more democratic. That also means, however, an independent judiciary.

Another major aspect of democratization of huge interest to the Chinese government is the failings of the one party state when it comes to poor treatment of its people. With disputes over land, forced evictions and corrupt officials, it’s the party that gets it in the neck whenever the fingers start to point. Not surprisingly then, when such protests emerge, they are quickly subdued. It’s not ideal, and the government knows it. An advantage democracy has however, is that if you don’t like your local politician, you can vote him out of office. Or if he’s corrupt, have him sent to jail. Such a system would indeed take the heat off the ruling party.

Here, the current state the United States has gotten into with the democratic process is of great interest. With the son of an ex-president now as president, with the wife of an ex-president making a serious challenge to be the next president…it doesn’t sound on the face of it to be all that democratic a system. To be able to usher in such a system, yet still keep the voters convinced they are in a democracy, has been an awesome display of audacity and political subterfuge.

With apparent power behind the throne then, a U.S.-based system of democracy would suit China very well. While powerful families maintain control behind the scenes, and the photo-bulb popping of presidents to keep the glare away, what betting is there that a Chinese-style democracy would not be the same? The rise of the powerful Chinese families is a struggle that has been going on, with increasingly high stakes to be fought for, in the world of democratizing China. An independent judiciary then, to keep the government in control doesn’t matter so much if you are a family with influence, and relatively benign. Let the judges keep everyone in order while the power-broking goes on behind the scenes.

There have been power-jostling casualties already in China, with various senior government officials now languishing in jail, and some fleeing overseas. Some businessmen too, have been caught. Why would you want to steal a billion dollars? That sort of cash makes no sense, unless you intend to launch a family political dynasty. When the current contenders have been able to muster enough political clout behind them under the current one party system in China, then you’ll see a gradual move to democracy. It’ll take awhile, but the journey has begun.

Managed democracy will be the next big thing in China. It was a 20 year trip from Tiananmen to the Olympics, and it’ll be another 20 years from here to “democracy.” Enjoy the ride.