Will China Democratize?

by Franklin Woo

Franklin J. Woo was chaplain and lecturer in religion, Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong (1965-1976) and director of the China Program, The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (1976-1993). He lives in Pasadena, California..

Used by permission of the author.


This is a review of Andrew J. Nathan, Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner, editors, Will China Democratize? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). It was written for China Review International, the Journal of the Center for Chinese Studies, University of Hawaii, February 10, 2014 by Franklin J. Woo.

Professor of political science at Columbia University Andrew J. Nathan is keen on the tenacity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to survive and stay in power, by its selective responses to the demands of certain sectors of Chinese populace and expedient reforms and relatively democratic ways within the government—all are to him, indications of the “authoritarian resiliency” of the CCP. Senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University Larry Diamond sees the countries of the world as heading more and more in recent decades towards democratic ways as if such a trend is inevitable (but also unpredictable). His yardstick for measuring democracy, however, is primarily one of national election, Western-style, while China “remains one of the very few countries in the world today that does not even pretend to choose its leaders by popular election” (p. xi ). Vice president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Marc F. Plattner represents an organization whose definition of democracy is much more stringent in its demands with criteria of democratic inclusivity (as shown in a short essay by its funding officer, Louisa Greve, cited below). Will China Democratize? begins with a composite Introduction to the topic by all three editors (Nathan, Diamond, and Plattner), followed by thirty articles by both Chinese and Western authors carefully selected from the Journal of Democracy (coedited by Diamond and Plattner). These were published in recent decades from the journal’s inception in 1990 to 2013. Among them three are by editor Nathan and one by Greve, who managed NED’s China grants program for fifteen years. Richard Madsen is the only sociologist writing about “The Upsurge of Religion in China.” He underscores the independent and uncontrollable nature of religion, especially those outside the purview of the five official religions in the PRC. But he notes the strong control in China of all organized activities which includes religion, particularly Christianity. The latter has only the option to follow the directives set by the Communist Party, while trying to carve out space for its own authentic Roman Catholic and Protestant selfhood amid overbearing constraint. The Epilogue includes two articles by 2011 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo posted on a Chinese website in 2006, translated in the Journal of Democracy, January 2011. Liu was the principle drafter of “Charter 08,” patterned after Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, calling for democracy and respect for human rights. Charter 08 resulted in Liu’s imprisonment and eventual exile from China.

With so many different and conditional views on the prospects for democracy in China, there is little agreement but significant areas of overlap between them. They all anticipate the need and inevitability of change in the political system of the People’s Republic, but cannot be certain as to when and how change will come about, because of the manifold contingent forces both within and outside of China. However, it is possible to group several of the articles as falling in the general realm of Nathan’s “authoritarian resiliency,” which has the longevity of an indefinite future. The other grouping can be under Diamond’s world trend towards democracy. If we do not limit democracy to only the official election of leaders on the national level and as the main criterion, then we can accept the fact that democracy can have many different forms. Minxin Pei (pp. 99-113) admittedly “sides with the skeptics in rejecting authoritarian resilience” by opting for the classical view that autocracies by their very nature of having absolute power and unchallenged privileges with no checks and balances inevitably leads to looting and corruption. With uncontested power, members of the ruling party behave in such a ruthless manner that results in sowing the seeds of their own destruction. This is despite the sophistication of the Communist Party, says Pei, in effective economic patronage in building a supportive wealthy and influential social elites through cooptation. The Party’s expedient oppression of the protesting masses (albeit selectively) by nipping them at the bud before any become fully organized or joined by other dissidents is also effective. However, the very nature of autocracies, Pei reminds us, with their propensity of endemic corruption is fundamentally towards self-destruction. Pei’s analysis is a sobering one, worth underscoring. Furthermore, wei wen,??, “stability maintenance” in proactively controlling the discontent of its citizens from getting out of hand, according to Xi Chen’s “The Rising Cost of Stability” can run into millions. The budget for such, he tells us, was more than the PRC’s military budget for 2011 (pp. 278-286). On this point there are parallels to America’s exorbitant spending on national security since the inception of George W. Bush’s “global war on terrorism” in 2001.1

In today’s information age, it is interesting to note how much the Internet plays in establishing a network of netizens that globally extends beyond the geography of China in criticism and opposition to the Chinese government, as noted by several of the authors. Rebecca McKinnon, cofounder of “Global Voices Online,” however, warns that the government can equally and even more effectively make use of the very same Internet for its own purpose of propaganda manipulation and control. In “China’s ‘Networked Authoritarianism’,” she shows how “strong governments in weak or new democracies are using second- and third-generation Internet controls in ways that contribute to the erosion of democracy and slippage back towards authoritarianism.” All the while the disgruntled and protesting netizens of China’s network may still be fixated on first generation ways of communication (p. 268). In support of its priority of stability maintenance the CCP also exploits and diverts the energy of the masses towards Chinese nationalism. The CCP stirs the nationalistic emotions of the people by contesting Japan over issues such as: the disputed territorial claims with China: its writing of history that omits Japanese atrocities in its invasion of China, and in recent visits by its leaders to Japan’s Yasukuni shrine which honors national heroes including convicted war criminals.2

The more than thirty articles in Will China Democratize were written by scholars in political science, astrophysics, business, law, public policy, politics, government, history, sociology, communications, and literary criticism. None are by philosophers or more specifically, philosophers of culture. If we were to look at the question of “Will China Democratize?” in terms of China’s intent in the last thirty years of returning and reinterpreting its multimillennial culture of civility and wisdom, the possibility of China democratizing is much more promising. This potential seems evident in the recent laboring pangs of the rebirth of the once jettisoned Confucian tradition in the twentieth century. With close to 400 Confucian institutes established in different countries of the world, the PRC is serious about promoting Chinese culture. Within China itself, however, “Confucius” after decades of cultural iconoclastic conditioning, still seems to elicit a negative emotional reaction. The revival of Confucianism indirectly is supported by the resurgence of the study of the philosophy of John Dewey in recent decades in different parts of the world, including China. Pertinent to this discussion is a recent publication of Democracy As Culture: Deweyan Pragmaticism in a Globalized World, edited by Sor-Hoon Tan and John Whalen-Bridge, both on the faculty of the National University of Singapore with a dozen articles by different authors on Dewey and Confucianism. In the Introduction editors Tan and Whalen-Bridge acknowledge their debt to Philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007), whose germinal work had revived John Dewey (1859-1952) and his pragmatism as a contribution not only to education, but in governance as well in his social democracy. They see Deweyan democracy not so much as a political system, but more as a way of life, “a set of practices, attitudes, and expectations, which, in an ideal society, would pervade every aspect of human interaction.” Such a comprehensive way is also seen in the Confucian tradition where Deweyan social democracy resonates so well. Furthermore, the editors are exercised over America’s attempt under George W. Bush to bring democracy to the Greater Middle East. They insist that “if democracy really has a global destiny (as many in the West regarding their own polity would suggest), it must grow out of, rather than replace, the values of different cultures, for any democracy promoted by the West that is contextual as culturally hegemonic will be a democracy in name only.”3

A perspective based on Chinese cultural values is found in an article entitled “Whither Democracy in China: The Complimentary Views of Five Scholars of Chinese Traditions.” The essay suggests that if and when China emerges as a democracy, it will be a “communal type” of “Confucian democracy,” however oxymoronic the term may sound to people outside of China. This Asian authoritarian form of governance with democratic ways today can be seen in varying degrees in countries and places such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—all with intimate experience of Confucianism.4 Lawyer Randall Perenboom suggests that just as law in any country must be “context specific,” so also is democracy. There is no such thing, he adds, as “one size fits all.” He is hopeful that the rule of law (where no one is above the law) as opposed to rule by law (for the benefit of the rulers) has slowly evolved in China today. People can even sue the government for violating what it had promised as the rights of the people in the Chinese constitution, also noted in Will China Democratize?

Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall highlight the communitarian nature of Chinese society rooted in the family as the essential metaphor expanding to everyone, (“big family,” da jia, ??), the society, state, (“nation family,” guo jia, ??), the family writ large with rulers seen as father and mother overseers, and even beyond to larger circles of inclusivity. (For accentuating the positive, we will set aside the negative aspect of communal connectedness as overbearing and even debilitating as familial entanglements.) They resurrect John Dewey, who for more than two years (1919-1921) lectured in China where he was named a “Second Confucius,” as he expounded his pragmatic ways of education and learning in a “communicating community” through social participation. They also see the challenge of democratic inclusivity in China as the need to address the problem of Han chauvinism (which they term “Oriental orientalism”) that lauds Han superiority over the national minorities. Condescension, control, and oppression towards minorities of Tibet and Xinjiang are poignantly described by Greve in “The Troubled Periphery” in Will China Democratize? However, she also notes a glimmer of hope in that some Han Chinese are sympathetic to and supportive of the rights and selfhood of China’s national minorities. These minorities are the Tibetans and the Uyghurs of Xinjiang who prefer the term “East Turkestan” for their homeland (pp. 169-174).

Wm. Theodore deBary, who is first and foremost an educator, does not believe that democracy is the natural outcome of economic growth. Democracy for him requires the dogged and sustained vigilance and effort of public intellectuals and people of conscience. Though perhaps an impossibility, the attempt to bring about a more excellent social order through unceasing education is an imperative and itself a meaningful and worthy project. A chapter in Will China Democratize? shows more and more university graduates are appearing in China today, including those among the new members of the Communist Party. However, despite the latter’s sustained attempt to coopt intellectuals, their growing numbers along with other social elites in the emerged middle class will soon exceed the Party’s ability of cooptation. Pei surmises the fragility of the CCP in light of “the potential pool of opposition leaders,” especially university graduates who are facing difficulty in finding employment (p. 109). The communal nature of Chinese life as depicted by de Bary resonates with Dewey’s social democracy. Individual rights are discovered in “rites” of participation for the common good that their “rights” are realized. Rights and privileges are inseparable from obligations and duties in community.

Henry Rosemont, Jr. highlights the difference between Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and to some extent Islam) which affirm an intelligible universe capable of being fully understood by human rational and moral faculties, while the less ambitious sages of Asia provide only directions, guiding us to lead more meaningful lives in this world, where full understanding will always be elusive and ambiguous. In short, to learn how to live in it, rather than to concentrate on learning about it. He suggests that leaders in the U.S. government can continue to share their democratic system with the world, but more important, they cannot force America’s most cherished values on others.

Will China Democratize? Prudens Quaestio Dimidium Scientiae, “Asking the right question is half the answer.” More importantly, asking the right question in the right way is more necessary, not from the perspective of one’s own culture, but from that of the other. Authors of the book edited by Nathan, Diamond, and Plattner have provided us with the imperative and perils of the possibility (or impossibility) of democracy in the People’s Republic. Though difficult to predict, all of the authors seem to indicate that change is inevitable. Liu Junning expresses it succinctly in describing China in recent decades, “The established ideology has been withering away both as an ideal and in practice, even though the regime that imposed it remains in place. Virtually no ‘true believers’ are left in China. There is an unbridgeable chasm between the official ideology and the reality of the market economy. The two cannot exist in harmony for long; one of them must give way” (p. 191). Philosophers of Chinese Culture, however, less pessimistic, see more of the promise of democracy in China based on the intentional and eventual recovery and rejuvenation of its authentic rich culture. This will not happen until the people and leaders, after centuries of deprivation, finally reaching Deng Xiaoping’s admonition in the end of the 1970s that “to get rich is glorious,” but also come to realize (if ever) that it takes much more than wealth and power to provide a good life for all its people. All in all, if and when China democratizes, we can be certain that it will be on its own terms.


1. “Tomgram: Englehardt, Believe It or Not National Security State” in TomDispatch.Com, January 5, 2014. See also Tom Englehardt’s book The United States of Fear. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011).

2. Carol J. Williams, “Abe visits shrine to Japanese war dead angering neighbors, U.S.” in Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2013. Also “A Slap in the Face: Shinzo Abe takes a dangerous gamble” in The Economist, January 4, 2014.

3. Democracy As Culture: Deweyan Pragmatism In a Globalizing World, edited by Sor-Hoon Tan and John Whalen-Bridge. (Albany: State University of New York, 2008). Tan is Associate Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore, while Whalen-Bridge is Associate Professor of English, also at National University of Singapore.

4. I wrote the article almost a decade ago for China News Update, January 2005, a publication of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 100 Witherspoon Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. The essay was a virtual summary of four books by these philosophers, one of whom, Perenboom, is a law professor who knows China: 1) Randall Pereboom, China’s Long March Towards Rule of Law. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 2 and 3) Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, The Democracy of the Dead: Dewey, Democracy, and the Hope for Democracy in China. Open Court, 1999. 4) Wm. Theodore de Bary, Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideal of Leadership and the Common Good. Harvard University Press, 2004. 5) Henry Rosemont, Jr., Rationality and Religious Experience: The Continuing Relevance of World Spiritual Traditions. Open Court, 2001).