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The Chinese Brand of Democracy

Can China produce its own model of democracy separate from Western ideals?

Order "What Does China Think?" here.


  • China has a vision of a high-tech consultative dictatorship, where there are no elections — but decisions made by a responsive government.
  • In the 1980s and 1990s, scholars argued that democracy was a precondition for growth. But in recent years this link has been increasingly questioned.
  • The pressing issue for most people in China is not "who should run the government?", but "how should the government be run?"
  • To many Chinese, democracy conjures up three of the most painful images in the Chinese psyche: the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the Cultural Revolution, and an independent Taiwan.

You talk about democracy as if it were a religion which needs to be spread around the world. But elections will not solve any of the problems facing China today.”

This is how Pan Wei, a rising academic star at Beijing University, greeted me at our first meeting. He was castigating me for paying so much attention to the experiments in grass-roots democracy that have sprung up around China.

“The Sichuan experiment [of competitive elections in a few townships] will go nowhere,” he said. “The local leaders have their personal political goal — they want to make their names known. But the experiment has not succeeded. In fact, Sichuan is the place with the highest number of mass protests. Very few other places want to emulate them.”

Unfortunately, Pan Wei is probably right. In the 1980s and 1990s, many scholars argued that democracy was the necessary prerequisite for wider political and economic progress in China. In particular, it was seen by many as a precondition for growth. But in recent years — not least because of China’s own economic success — this link has been increasingly questioned.

It is this instrumental view of democracy — as a route to prosperity or political stability rather than a goal in itself — which allows scholars like Pan Wei to attack it head on. He argues that elections will not fix any of China’s most pressing problems — the rise in protests, the gap between rich and poor, the near bankruptcy of the rural economy, the lack of domestic consumption or the pervasive corruption of the political elite.

In fact, Pan Wei thinks that democracy would actually make things worse. “The more electorates politicians want to reach, the more money they need. There are always rich people who want to provide money in exchange for some government support. Therefore, once elected, the public officers are to serve electors on the one hand and money providers on the other.”

The pressing issue for most people, he says, is not “who should run the government?” but “how should the government be run?” He argues that political reform should flow from social problems rather than universal or Western principles.

Most theorists of democracy would rightly reject Pan Wei’s attempt to separate how a government is run from how its leaders are selected: The former is very much a product of the latter.

The legitimacy that comes from elections would strengthen any government that tried to deal with China’s problems — domestically and internationally.

However, Pan Wei’s aversion to democracy seems to have emotional rather than intellectual roots. He claims that democracy conjures up three of the most painful images in the Chinese psyche: the collapse of the former Soviet Union which followed Gorbachev’s political liberalization, the so-called “people’s democracy” of China’s own Cultural Revolution, and the risk of an independent Taiwan.

Pan Wei berates Westerners for misunderstanding their own political systems. We assume, he says, that our countries are stable and prosperous because of democracy. But we confuse the benefits we get from democracy with those that we get from the rule of law.

Pan Wei argues that democracy and the rule of law do not need to go together — in fact, like “Ying” and “Yang,” they are in constant conflict with one another. Democracy is about giving power to the people, but the rule of law is about putting limits on that power.

Democracy creates governments, but the rule of law regulates them. Democracy is about making laws, the rule of law about enforcing them. The powerbase of democracy lies in the officials we vote for — parliamentarians, ministers, prime ministers and presidents.

But the power of the rule of law comes from people who are deliberately not elected — independent civil servants, judges and auditors.

Where democracy draws its legitimacy from populism — elections and votes in parliament — the rule of law draws it from entrance exams and performance reviews: “The former is about majority, and the latter about meritocracy.”

In the West, according to Pan Wei, we can enjoy both because we have reached a level of material wealth and modernity that allows the two to live side by side, balancing each other in permanent tension.

On the other hand, developing countries do not have that luxury. They have to choose one or the other. Many developing countries from Yugoslavia and Rwanda to Angola and Lebanon have chosen democracy without the rule of law.

The result has been chaos, as populist regimes have exploited ethnic tensions to get their hands on power. According to Pan Wei, it is the premature introduction of democracy that has undermined the rule of law and modernization. And it has forced leaders to pander to popular sentiment rather than making painful reforms for the long term.

On the other hand, Pan Wei claims, a handful of developing countries like Singapore and Hong Kong adopted the rule of law without democracy. They have known nothing but success. Their economies have grown steadily, they have attracted investment, wiped out corruption — and developed strong national identities.

It is no surprise that China’s Communist authorities are taking notice of Pan Wei’s idea of “demythologizing democracy” and separating it from the rule of law. Under his vision, a neutral civil service system would strictly and impartially enforce laws — and propose legislative bills.

It would be held in permanent check by judges who would be the guardians of the Chinese Constitution. Although it is a long way from reality, Pan Wei has a vision of a high-tech consultative dictatorship, where there are no elections — but decisions made by a responsive government, bound by law and in touch with its citizens’ aspirations.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “What Does China Think” by Mark Leonard. Copyright 2008 Mark Leonard. Reprinted with permission from the publisher and author.

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