Will China ever be ready for democracy? - SupChina

Will China ever be ready for democracy?

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s recent answers originally posted to Quora on November 2, 2017.

Would China be politically unstable if there were more than one government party?


First, read this from last week, where I explain why the Chinese aren’t exactly clamoring to overthrow their one-party government:

Why do Chinese people like their government?

If you’re asking about right now, then yes — it would certainly be politically unstable for China to have more than one party. There’s no question that at present there aren’t institutions in place that could handle multiparty elections, no guides for how the state would actually operate. And there’s no semblance of a pluralistic political culture.

But I believe that if you think it’s somehow impossible for China or for Chinese people to ever reach a point where multiparty democracy was possible, you’re guilty of a contemptible and inexcusably condescending essentialism. Alas, there’s really no easy glide path to it from here. As Hu Shi once said, the only way to have democracy is to have democracy, and no “period of tutelage” as Sun Yat-sen envisioned is going to bring it about, especially not when the party in power is so dead-set against it.

If political pluralism is something that we honestly desire for China, the best case scenario is one in which some individual (or group of individuals) who nurtures democratic values comes to power at a time when enough people in the Party elite can be persuaded — perhaps looking around and seeing deep-seated discontent within the intelligentsia, the urban middle class, and business elites — that having multiparty elections would be eventually desirable and that the best thing to do is get there peacefully through deliberate creation and empowerment of institutions of constraint, like an independent judiciary, intraparty popular elections, separation of powers, and eventually legal if toothless opposition parties that take part in elections.

Also see:

Kuora: China’s eventual transition into democracy


Kuora is a weekly column. Image: Castaneda Luis, AGF UIG.

Kaiser Kuo

Kaiser Kuo is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor-at-large of SupChina.

One Comment

  1. Luiz Reply

    “But I believe that if you think it’s somehow impossible for China or for Chinese people to ever reach a point where multiparty democracy was possible, you’re guilty of a contemptible and inexcusably condescending essentialism.”

    I thought the above was somewhat silly and overbearing. Given the broad sweep of human history, nobody would deny that anything is possible (who would have predicted Communist Party rule for China 100 years ago?) and in another few hundred years China may well have the world’s leading democracy. Who knows?

    The more interesting question is what is the likelihood that something will happen over a certain period of time. In his eternal bid to dropkick the essentialists, Kaiser fails to mention a few ‘essential’ facts about China as we know it that pose a challenge to any transition to democracy i.e. its demographics. This is a country with a population of more than 1 billion people, in which one dominant ethnicity and several other minorities coexist in a state of high tension.

    How easily could it all hang together under a liberal democracy? Isn’t it more likely that we would see the kind of illiberal, managed democracy of Russia and Turkey or the nationalist strongman politics of present-day India? And to what extent would that be an improvement over the China has now?

    I think these are all much more interesting talking points than a constant braying against essentialists, who are by now mostly paper tigers.

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