Democracy in China: the Present and Future

14 May

The Chinese government is one of the four governments in the world that identifies themselves as a Communist government within a one party system. The one party system within China means that the ruling communist party’s ideology is ingrained within the political institutions. This has lead to a monopoly on power by the Communist Party.

Whilst the Communist Party is supported by many people within China, after the death of Mao the popularity of the idea of democracy within China became more widespread. Starting in 1978, the movement that became known as the “Beijing Spring” began to spread across China, culminating in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. This then lead to the government clamping down on the democratic movement and the groups related with it. Despite the Communist Party clamping down on movement led by the people they have however integrated aspects of democracy within the Chinese political system whilst still retaining the monopoly on power.

When Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, he began to experiment with direct democracy at a local level, mainly within townships and urban areas. Beginning in the early 1980’s, villages became able to elect their local party chiefs, by 1989 nearly all of China’s 950,000 villages were now electing their own party chiefs. 60% of the Chinese population lives within these villages, so the majority of the population live with some form of democratic participation in their life. Villages are considered to be at the bottom of the Chinese political hierarchy and the local party chiefs are considered to hold a lot of power and political sway within the rural areas. The democratisation of the Party Chief position in villages shows a grassroots approach to democratisation within China.

One of the first experiments of democratisation of a large urban area was the democratic participation in Chongqing. The government within Chongqing after seeing its successes in other parts of the world implemented a participatory budgeting system within the city. In this system a group of citizens were chosen at random to decide between several schemes (chosen by the city’s leaders) on where the public money was spent within the city. They then received talks from experts from all the different areas. The citizens were then left to discuss and decide between them where the money was best spent within Chongqing, this decision was then used by the city’s government. This approach was praised by the central government as it promoted participation but still meant that the Communist Party maintained an element of control over the process.

The province of Guangdong in recent years has undergone a democratic transformation. The process began with the protests in the village of Wukan in 2011. The protest began as a reaction due to land grabs by the local government in the favour of companies that were investing in the area and against corruption within the local government. The protests resulted in a siege by police cutting off supplies to the protesters. Media coverage was heavily censored within China, however international news coverage meant that information regarding the siege spread. As part of the end of the siege, it was agreed upon that instead of electing just a new Party Chief, that all local representatives would be locally elected. This meant to the village of Wukan was able to elect 107 new local representatives as well as a new Party Chief removing the incumbent one that had held the position for 42 years. Following the success of the protests in Wukan, similar protests occurred within the village of Dadun. The protests in Dadun resulted in a similar result to Wukan with the villagers being able to elect their local representatives.

Despite the democratisation across China leading to greater larger degree of public participation it has been criticised both within China and internationally. One of the major criticisms has been that the elections only happen at the village level. Within the Chinese political hierarchy villages are considered to be at the bottom. So allowing citizens to elect representatives for these is argued to inconsequential as the other levels of government and relative lack of power prevent them from doing anything that causes a dramatic change. Criticism has also been aimed at the idea that although there is now an element of public choice, there is still only one choice. In local elections only candidates from the Communist Party or parties approved by the Communist Party are able to stand meaning that citizens are now only able to choose the face of the Communist Party that represents them. In the case of Chongqing, people were only able to choose from schemes that were already selected by the city’s government not ones that were put forward by the people involved in the process. The Guangdong model of democratisation was lead by Wang Yang (who was Communist Party Chief of the province until 2013). The basic premise of the democratisation was based around an egg. The egg yolk represented the monopoly on power by the Communist Party and the shell represented the political system. The shell (political system) can change and fall away whilst the yolk (Communist Party) stays the same. In this respect it could be argued that the democratisation of China is merely an attempt to cling on to power for as long as possible.

China is taking the slower road to democracy after the lessons learnt from the democratisation of the Soviet Union after the opening up of the markets. Privatisation and foreign investment followed by the rapid democratisation lead to a power vacuum and political instability. China’s leaders have instead taken the view that the gradual opening up of the Chinese political system is necessary to avoid these problems. However, it has been argued that China may never fully democratise. This has been argued  as many thinkers in China do not see the correlation between democracy and public well being. They see that the quality of life and happiness of citizens can be kept at high standards without them having to participate within the political system. An alternative to democracy has also been suggested by other thinkers of a Confucian based society as these values are more compatible with the traditional values within Chinese culture. A major change within the political system in China however, it is unclear as to whether it will be a more western style of governance or a new more Chinese influenced system.


Leonard, M.  (2008) What Does China Think? New York City: Publicaffairs

Jacques, M. (2009) When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. London: Penguin

Kynge, J. (2009) China Shakes the World: The Rise of a Hungry Nation. London: Phoenix

Klein, N. (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Penguin.


2 Responses to “Democracy in China: the Present and Future”

  1. jdh2g11 May 15, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    An interesting read, I feel that in order to help determine the future of democracy it is suitable to look at a similar countries in the region. South Korea and Taiwan, are examples where, “market reforms have created a private class of enrepreneurs, which eventually leads to a middle class of consumers who will demand political rights”.

    However you could look at Singapore where the paradox of china seems clear. As the model is essentially the same, a strong authoritarian party that governs as a one party state and yet brings economic prosperity to most citizens

  2. ags2g09 May 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    A thoroughly informative and stimulating account of where democracy stands in modern China. I can’t help but ask the question, though – what is the importance of this discussion? Is it merely in response to academic curiosity? It seems a general assumption of Western political thought that China SHOULD be moving towards democracy. Well, why? Global transfers of political ideology are indeed common (the USA imposes its legal and political ideologies on many developing nations, for example), but China is no develop-ing country; they are develop-ed, and have their own functioning political ethos that has seen them be economically and internationally successful. Why is there a need for change perceived in the West? Throughout the majority of history China has embodied Confucian philosophy, and even now the system of social control through moral education is more important than a pluralistic political society.

    I take the view that as far as democracy is concerned, countries should take the ‘virginity approach’ – you either have it, or you don’t. In my view, China serves no realistic aim by having democracy only at the village level – the egg yolk analogy in the article is effective, since it details how the Communist party are still retaining the central control over all things political. It is a step in the right direction that since 1998, villagers are allowed to nominate who runs for office themselves (rather than village groups or CCP nominations) but it still does not address the monopolised political framework higher up in the system. If democracy is what China wants (which in itself, is by no means a certainty), then it should be embraced fully. If not, then China in my view ought to abandon piecemeal change. In a similar vein, I feel that Western critics ought to stop assuming that democracy is the change China needs – China doesn’t ‘need’ political change – perhaps it might even be argued that democracy in China would cause unprecedented problems; the system of control currently in place may not be perfect (since it is hampered by, for example, the corruption of public officials), but it is what China has embraced – just because it is alien to Western schools of political thought, it does not make it in any way inferior.

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