Do the Chinese people want democracy?

Yesterday, Hong Kong voters provided a “landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in [its] district council elections.”  This came, of course, after months of pro-democracy protests.  Does this mean that a majority of Chinese citizens want democracy?  No, it does not.

As explained in the previous post in this blog, accounts of the Hong Kong protests in the mainland Chinese media have been incomplete and slanted to describe them as an “anti-Western prelude to terrorism.”  Similarly, today’s first election accounts from the official state news agency Xinhua “reported [that] the votes had been counted, but did not detail the results. It said ‘some rioters harassed patriotic candidates’ on election day, and that the ‘most pressing task for Hong Kong at present is still to bring the violence and chaos to an end and restore order.’” 

At this very moment, it is fair to assume that the way the central government in Beijing responds is being discussed at the highest levels.  A hint at the initial reaction came a few hours ago when Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that “no matter what happens, Hong Kong is a part of China…  Any attempt to mess up Hong Kong, or even damage its prosperity and stability, will not succeed.”

Yesterday’s results at the polls make it crystal clear that a majority of Hong Kong voters want a more democratic system. But the 7 million people who live in Hong Kong represent only about 0.5% of China’s population, and have a radically different history and cultural background from the mainland Chinese population. 

Hong Kong became a colony of Great Britain in 1842 when China lost the First Opium War.  For the next 150 years, the island lived under British rule and became accustomed to Western law.  In the negotiations that led up to returning Hong Kong to China in 1997, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the “one country, two systems” constitutional principle, which gave the government of Hong Kong autonomy, and its people more rights than on the mainland. 

Simply put, the Hong Kong protestors are fighting to hold on to the democratic rights they have held through several generations.  Most mainland Chinese have no experience with democratic rights.

Given Beijing’s control of the media and the internet, it is hard to know how the mainland Chinese feel about democracy.  But the best available evidence suggests that most are reasonably content with the current authoritarian system. 

“According to valid polls conducted by Western standards, the overwhelming majority of the [Chinese] population sees the central government as having benevolent intentions and, notwithstanding serious mistakes, as having largely filled those intentions.”  (China’s Crisis of Success, Kindle location 6219)  If China’s persecuted minorities were polled — including Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims – the results would surely be more negative.  But these persecuted minorities represent only about another 0.5% of the total population.

It is no surprise that most Chinese citizens are content with the stable present, considering their chaotic past.  Within living memory, China was one of the poorest, most backward countries on the planet.  For example, the older generation lived through the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961, in which as many as 45 million people died of starvation. 

Now, a half century later, thanks to the Chinese economic miracle (to be discussed in a future post) the biggest food challenge some Chinese face is what to order at Starbucks.  Should they get a red bean oats scone to go with that Mango Passion Fruit Frappuccino?  (According to a recent article in China Daily, there are now over 3,000 Starbucks in China.  Within five years, in partnership with one of China’s largest distributors of soft drinks and instant noodles, Starbucks expects to have over 125,000 locations in 400 Chinese cities.)

For countries that are still stuck in poverty, democracy is not a priority.  As William Overholt put it, “If you are malnourished and ill and illiterate and your children are at risk, participating in an election doesn’t help much…. [In India’s democracy], a malnourished illiterate 12 year old girl whose mother died in childbirth… and whose father is crippled by air pollution far more debilitating than China’s, who has never seen a toilet and who was forcibly married to an old man, will have the right to a vote, but is that really what’s most important to human dignity?” (China’s Crisis of Success, Kindle locations 684, 307)

At least since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, “Beijing has firmly adhered to one core principle: uphold the rule of the Chinese Communist Party at all costs.”  (End of an Era, p. 18)  The country’s leadership is especially concerned with avoiding the fate of Russia’s experiments with democracy in the 1980 and 1990s.  As the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party summed up the results of the Soviet Union’s ill-fated attempt at democracy: “Gross Domestic Product fell by half… oligarchs emerged to plunder state assets; Russians lined up on the sidewalk to face supply shortages; war veterans had to sell their medals in order to buy bread.”  (Age of Ambition, p. 365)

In China, the Party has been extremely successful in growing the economy and preserving their power.  In fact, according to Richard McGregor “The Party’s marginalization of all political opponents makes it somewhat like the Iraqi army after the second Gulf War.  Even if it were disbanded or fell apart it would have to be put back together again because its members alone have the skills, experience, and networks to run the country.”  (The Party, p xxii)

No one can predict the future, but that’s never stopped experts from trying.  Twenty years ago, most academics believed that China was on a slow road to liberal democracy.  But these days there are fewer who predict this rosy outcome.  As Michael Pillsbury put it (Hundred Year Marathon, p. 182) “Of course, there’s a chance that… China will turn away from tyranny and embrace democracy at home and abroad.  But there is little reason to be optimistic.”

Part of the explanation was discussed in the first post in this blog “The cultural differences between China and America are so great that they can easily lead to profound misunderstandings.” 

According to Graham Allison “China abides by Confucius’ first commandment ‘Know thy place.’  For Chinese, order is the central political value, and the alternative to order is chaos.” (Destined for War, p. 142)  Or, to put it another way “The cultural heritage in which the good of a hierarchical society is prized far above the democratic rights of the individual… runs through the veins of the Communist Party, much as it did for the [5000 year history of Chinese] imperial dynasties.” (Red Flags, p. 18).

2 thoughts on “Do the Chinese people want democracy?

  1. Jim, I believe that your academic psychology training could shed light on some of the questions you raise on seemingly political issues. Expediency is deeply embedded into the Communist Party’s psyche where things are done or said which may be contrary to avowed principles in the short-run, but everybody knows that victory in the long run is the real prize. So, when Chairman Mao opened talks with President Nixon to “open up” Revolutionary China to evil capitalists, it wasn’t in view of adapting or changing, but it was driven by 1 million Soviet troops amassed on its borders and fear of the Revolution’s vision being permanently derailed.

    Fast forward to Mr. Deng’s 1997 “one country, two systems,” constitutional principle sounded great, but it was expediency at its best, since the state capitalism system and its mercantalist trade strategy had to be enshrined for the long-term goals to be achieved. Today, things look different, and words are reinterpreted. Not that complicated, it seems to me.

    Also, you speak about choices for the ordinary Chinese citizen. But, here’s where some psychological analysis could come in. If citizens have been living in a deeply cynical and inhumane system of propaganda which reaches every moment of their economic, social, political and religious lives, and these people seem “content,” as you put it, then it seems that real choice is not something which would seem comprehensible to them.

    Take Western bluster about removing the Sadat dictatorship. Many Syrians, especially Christians, warned about what might come next from the heavy-handed pursuit of democratic change, for fear of what might come next. They were right: what came was wanton destruction of ordinary life, mass migration, and total destruction of the infrastructure for ordinary living. This came from the promise of democracy, choice, and better days.

    Perhaps the Chinese people who seem “content” are just rational and visionary enough to know the real score? By contrast, the sheltered and relatively privileged in Hong Kong protest. But, is their any kind of victory in the cards for them? I just ask the question.

    “Let a thousand flowers bloom. Let a hundred schools contend,” if I recall the little Red Book. But let them bloom until uprooted, and let them contend but only the right one prevail. This may have been what was understood but unwritten.

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  2. Nick Land, a leading Accelerationist philosopher, now lives in Shanghai. He and others think that the Chinese model of state capitalism will bring us faster to the technological singularity futurists predict.

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