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China's 'incremental' democracy


When President Hu Jintao last visited Washington in 2006, protestors were only too eager to remind the Chinese leader of his country’s poor record on human rights and democracy.

But last week, as the United States once again played host to the Chinese leader, it wasn’t so much what the protestors did that made news headlines. This time, the media coverage centred on the offhand remarks of Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader.

During an interview with Jon Ralston in his home state of Nevada earlier last week, Reid had this to say about President Hu: ‘Jon, I'm going to go back to Washington tomorrow and meet with the president of China. He is a dictator. He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have.’

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But then, having perhaps realised what he had just said, Reid quickly added: ‘Maybe  I shouldn't have said “dictator”. But they have a different type of government than we have and that's an understatement.’

An understatement? Really? Or is it actually an overstatement?

It’s certainly true that China is no utopia. There is no denying that the country remains a one-party state which only very infrequently tolerates dissent, continues to violate the human rights of its citizens, censures religious freedom, and openly censors the free flow of information. Just last month, the Communist Party of China publicly condemned the Nobel Committee for awarding the 2010 Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo for his human rights activism in China. Liu Xiaobo, as one official Chinese spokesman said, is a ‘criminal’, and awarding him the prize amounts to ‘a complete violation of the principles of the prize and an insult to the Peace Prize itself’.  China’s shortcomings in this regard cannot, and should not, be overlooked.

But having said that, it’s also true to say that China and its system of political governance have, during the reform period, become something altogether different to what it was under Mao. As Peter Foster writes, ‘China is far from free, but three decades after 150 years of invasions, civil wars and political upheaval finally came to a close, it is a long way from the totalitarian state it has at times appeared to be’. Likewise, the China expert Baogang He has emphasised that the ‘totalitarian paradigm is no longer appropriate’ for understanding contemporary China.

So how then should we understand contemporary China?

Through the paradigm of ‘incremental democracy’, argues Yu Keping, the eminent Chinese political scientist. 

In recent years, according to Yu, democracy has incrementally been taking hold in people’s minds and in key Chinese political institutions. The notion of incremental democracy is not concerned with 'one theory or doctrine of democracy'. It  ‘embraces all useful elements of various theories and doctrines’ of democracy while staying true to the current ‘Chinese situation and traditional culture’.

Indeed, when China’s leaders met during the 17th National Party Congress in 2007, they did so with the intent ‘to expand people’s democracy’. They emphasised that crucial to China's political reforms is a renewed vision of citizenship that enables the people to ‘enjoy democratic rights in a more extensive way’ and ‘to participate, to express their views and to supervise the administration.’

President Hu stated that in China the people are to become ‘masters of the country’. It’s the people’s right, he declared, ‘to be informed, to participate, to be heard, and to oversee’. The committee of leaders and the Party as a whole should, as such, be subject to greater scrutiny in its exercise of power and in its decision-making capacity. Progressively, China’s leaders will hold less and less personal authority. They will be less able to dictate.

The empirical evidence for these claims can be found in the moves afoot to increase transparency in local and national politics, in the efforts to nurture a more robust citizenry, as well as in the rising demands for free speech and media. China is witnessing a rise in popular elections at all levels, many of which have become as competitive and as transparent as democratic elections in the West.

There is cause to be optimistic, writes the China scholar Zhengxu Wang, as ‘Chinese politics is bringing itself closer to constitutionalism, rule of law, transparency, openness, societal autonomy, and civil liberties.’ The data that he cites corroborates this. In a 2001 World Values Survey of China, 96% of Chinese surveyed responded that a ‘democratic political system’ in China would either be ‘good’ or ‘very good’. 

These developments suggest that, at least in its leaders’ rhetoric, China has begun to affirm the value of and need for democracy. Although, like Western nations before it, it may selectively mould a system of democratic governance to suit its own history, economy and culture – a ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics’ – nevertheless the result may be no less democratic.

As democratic initiatives in China are measured to its existing historical, economic and cultural milieu, the transition will be slow, sometimes infuriatingly so. But we must not forget that China’s current democratic reforms are only in their infancy.  Much needs improving. But judging by the country’s social, political and economic transformation of the last decade or so, there is indeed cause to be optimistic.

Western commentators who continue to demonise China and its leaders as democratic pariahs – as Senator Reid did last week – may disagree. That's their prerogative. But by so isolating China among the community of nations, they may actually hinder more than help the next global superpower on its path to democratisation.

Mark ChouMark Chou recently completed his PhD in political science and international relations at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has previously published in the Griffith Review, New Matilda, truthout, and ABC Unleashed.

Topic tags: Mark Chou, hu jintao, China, democracy, washington, obama, harry reid



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Existing comments

Democracy and individual freedomS are not part of Chinese culture or history. Being from Taiwan means you probably understand the background to the previous Chinese revolution. Could another take place soon, delayed only by passive and semi-sanctioning views such as those above? How much do money and 'fear of confrontation' play in our kindness to the negatives of "Chinese culture"? The Chinese people like any others are my brothers and sisters, deserving of my freedomS.

Reader | 27 January 2011  

Thank-you Mark for your thoughtful and timely article. I was a bit disappointed in the temerity of senator Reid's remarks. Some favourable comparisons might be made between the progress over centuries in England towards democracy as it is now understood. There was a brief experiment with revolution in the mid seventeenth century, as everybody knows, but this was, compared to the revolitions elsewhere (particularly France in the eighteenth century)much more of an historical anomaly. The preferred path was that universal sufferage be alowed to evolve over many years, that democracy be measured against the history and culture of the English people as you say of China's preference, and that, as you say of China, changes be made incrementally.

I admire the Chinese political wisdom which wishes for a more engaged citenzenry to emerge at the same time as power and oversight are increasingly invested in them. There is much to criticize in China, but it is interesting that there remains much to criticize in what we regard as more fully fledged democracies in the western context. There is much to admire and praise in the considered and gradual letting go of power by the Chinese leadership and their evident concern for the overall welfare and economy of the People's Rebublic.

Dave | 27 January 2011  

China opposes the democratization of the world. it seriously associates with those not democratic or anti-democracy. That trend doesn't convince me China would democratize itself. No!

It allows Hong Kong some democracy. But this is a different case. Taiwanese democracy works. A type of different democracy claimed by Chinese scholars is merely an argument - no credibility in arguing against real democracy.

The communists must have praised their People's Democracy. Another form of democracy would go just that way.

AZURE | 27 January 2011  


This article is misleading. China is not edging towards democracy. In fact it has been edging away. Lip service by Hu Jintao and other leaders of the Communist Party of China do not reflect the reality of increasing human rights abuses and consistent suppression any sort of democratic movement.

It is not "demonization" to accurately describe the situation in a horrifying country such as China. Prior to WWII, Nazi Germany apologists drove the world to the brink of disaster through a policy of appeasement. Your suggestions that China is not as bad as it seems is in the same vein as apologists of the past.

Australians, and anyone else who enjoy basic human rights in their society, should take a firm stance against the challenge of oppression that is China today. Do not be mislead by apologists and propaganda. China is absolutely not heading towards democracy, at least not while the current leadership is in power.

Editor, China Censorship Watch

Editor of China Censorship Watch | 27 January 2011  

I feel that democracy comes in many shades. Here in Australia we beat our chests in the knowledge that we live in a “free and democratic” nation.

In reality, a few people in a few political parties decide who is going to run for election and what policies are going to be implemented.

The real power in Australia is now a loose alliance between a very powerful public service, lobbyists and party apparatchiks.

Like the knights in shiny armour during the middle ages, our “elected members” are perfumed, groomed and coached to be the player in the “game of democracy”.

We have no longer knights fighting each other on horseback to entertain the masses. We have our media entertaining us with selected “political news stories” and every few years we have events called elections which are great money-spinners for TV stations, PR companies and a few printers.

These elections are great to provide re-enforce the illusion that we have a great democracy. The reality is that we suffer from an “incremental loss” of freedom.

Beat Odermatt | 27 January 2011  

I wonder if we would be writing and commenting on the democratisation of China had it not been for Senator Harry Reid's gaffe?

Most American politicians are used to thinking in simple terms like "who is not with us is against us", "who is against the right to bear arms wants to render us defenceless."

Discussion about the goverance of nation states and their relationships with other nation states cannot be reduced to slogans or aphorisms. George Orwell's Animal Farm is a cautionary tale against political sloganeering that we would do well to re-read at least once a year.

Mark Chou in his brief essay makes it quite clear that the multiplicity of inter-acting variables - historical, economic, political, social and cultural - that impinges on President Hu Jintao's exercise of power is of such complexity that to describe him as a dictator is a sign of very sloppy thinking. One shudders at the thought that this sort of blinkered thinking permeates the American body politic.

Uncle Pat | 27 January 2011  

China's tentative steps towards democracy


Ben | 27 January 2011  

When will the USA learn something about diplomacy, and no, I do not mean appeasement? Pres. Hu Jintao himslf said in Washingtonn that China still neeeds to make more progress on human rights. Why could not the Americans take that on board, monitor it if they feel like, and shut up, waiting to see progress, rather than throwing it back in China's face by saying explicitly that they want action rather than words.

China is a proud country, and rightly so. It is also a country with a long memory. Within the last few hundred years, it has seen bits amputated and occupied by foreigners who disdained Chinese law and institutions. It has even been forced, by some of the better-known names in British business, to import drugs of addiction. How would we feel today if Burma was the greatest maritime power in the world, and sent gunboats into Sydney Harbour to force open our doors to heroin?
This is probably the century of China, whether the rest of the world likes it or not, and how China comports itself on the world stage, and how it progresses towards the kind of government its people want, will no doubt depend to some extent upon how China is treated.

I have spent time in a Chines provincial city and surrounding countryside, and I see great reason for hope, not least in the way successful young people are giving generously of their time to support and mentor poor students from rural villages.
Among ordinary Chinese people, from university professors to subsistence farmers, there is enormous goodwill towards us; I have never felt more welcome anywhere. Let us move on with patience and respect.

Peter Downie | 28 January 2011