When will Chinese Democracy reach Beijing?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 21 2008 1:31 PM

Still Waiting for Chinese Democracy

How long can Beijing resist political liberalization?

Axl Rose. Click image to expand.
Axl Rose

Axl Rose understands, perhaps as well as the Chinese Communist Party, that creating Chinese Democracy requires patience. As Chinese Democracy hits stores in the United States, democracy is far from rocking China. But Rose may be consoled by the knowledge that in the 17 years it took the album to take shape, rock 'n' roll has made a ripple in China—indeed, "November Rain" can be found on the playlist of countless karaoke bars. Guns N' Roses surely owes its rising popularity with a new generation of Chinese to economic liberalization, even as its latest album's title track bemoans the state of the political system. As Rose wails that time's running out for the Chinese government, evidence suggests that, in fact, time is very much on Beijing's side.

Some in the United States were undoubtedly dejected when Deng Xiaoping, who in 1978 inaugurated sweeping market reforms of the Chinese economy, ultimately failed to deliver on promises of political liberalization. Hopes for a democratic China were violently quashed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, only to be reignited when the Soviet Union disintegrated two years later, leaving China the lone major power led by a wobbly authoritarian government. Yet as Communist regimes toppled around the world in short order, China proved immune to the democratization wave washing from Moscow to Berlin. Expectations for Chinese democratization dimmed as time wore on, and 30 years after Deng opened up the Chinese economy, China's political system remains insular. The CCP has defied predictions of its imminent collapse, and Western-style democracy has not come to China. What gives?

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It's clear that China is not lurching toward democracy. Understanding why this is so requires poking some holes in underlying Western assumptions. One of the dominant assumptions is that economic liberalization will inevitably lead to political freedoms, yet China has grown ferociously for 30 years without sweating such inevitability. Another assumption, related to the first, is that China's 100 million strong and growing middle class will demand political reforms once its material wealth has been satisfied. But few signs point to concerted political activism among Starbucks-drinking, BMW-driving, Guns N' Roses-listening Chinese yuppies. A more recent assumption is that the Internet will act as a powerful tool to circumvent China's ubiquitous censorship and organize massive grass-roots movements against the status quo. Aside from Internet-organized anti-Japanese demonstrations, the Web has yet to prove its utility for fomenting serious political opposition in China.

CNN's Jack Cafferty famously called the Chinese leadership the same bunch of "goons and thugs" during the Tibet protests in spring 2008, highlighting the static image of China in the West. True, heavy-handed suppression of perceived threats to the political regime is still in Beijing's arsenal of knee-jerk, reactive policies and should not be condoned. But it is a mistake to view the Chinese leadership as simply a ruthless dictatorial regime. Mao Zedong would probably not recognize today's CCP, save several of its more anachronistic elements. It has undergone thoughtful introspection about its own legitimacy and potential demise, recently prompting Vice President Xi Jinping, the front-runner to assume the presidency in 2013, to state that the CCP's survival is not inevitable. What's more, Premier Wen Jiabao, in an unprecedented interview with Fareed Zakaria earlier this fall, unflinchingly claimed that a democratic China will be the endgame.

But the Chinese concept of "democracy" should not be conflated with the Western idea of direct elections and using the rule of law to constrain power. The utterance of the term democracy among the Chinese elite has so far meant promoting government transparency and accountability, village-level elections, rule by consensus and consultation, expanding the public sphere, co-opting entrepreneurs and intellectuals into the party—anything but conceding ultimate power to the people.

In short, the CCP has nimbly adapted, is populated largely by elites, and is essentially ruled by a nine-member oligarchy in the Politburo, the fount of power in Chinese politics. Gone are the days of a single strong man. More voices now participate in the policymaking process, creating competing factions within the party that vie for influence.

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