A Troubled China Needs Democracy

<i> Hall Gardner is a visiting professor of American government and comparative politics at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University</i>

Near the main gates of the Nanjing University campus, hundreds of people have crowded each day to read posters pasted over blackboards that normally announce the day’s events. Since the death of Hu Yaobang, regarded by many as a spokesperson for democracy until his ouster from the Central Committee in 1987 after student demonstrations, students throughout China have erected their own democracy walls.

The posters, generally written in hasty Chinese calligraphy, express varying political sentiments. Some of the posters have altered the text of classical Chinese poetry, giving the words a more relevant meaning. Others rewrite political slogans: Sun Yat Sen’s famous saying--”If the revolution is not successful, we must struggle again!”--has been transformed into “If the reforms are not successful, we must struggle again!” This refers to the fact that the Communist Party has begun to backtrack on the political reforms that it has implemented over the past 10 years.

Posters that criticize Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping have been quickly torn down by plainclothes public security agents. Some of the posters say that China needs more “openness,” referring to glasnost and the reforms of Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Most of the posters call for more democracy: “Hu Yaobang is dead; but democracy is not”; “The Chinese do not fear to live, why should they fear to die?” and “We want democracy now!”


China is in deep trouble. The Communist Party retrenchment is aimed at fostering centralization, controlling provincial governments, slowing down the overheated economy and squashing the demand for political reforms. Not enough progress has been made to release political prisoners, to compromise with the Dalai Lama over Tibetan autonomy and to end the state of animosity that exists between the mainland and Taiwan. There have been essentially two responses to China’s crisis. One is called the “new authoritarianism.” The other is the “pro-democracy” movement.

New authoritarianism has been favored by Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang in his call for a “new authority” to get the country rolling again by establishing a pure market economy led by a new class of technocratic entrepreneurs. The new authoritarians argue that China should emulate countries such as South Korea, Brazil and, ironically, Taiwan to deal with China’s tremendous problems: the inability to compete on the world market, its lack of advanced technology, its overpopulation, as well as the problems created by political and social dissent. The example countries, it is argued, were able to develop because of iron discipline and the repression of democratic sentiment. As uneducated peasants cannot comprehend the issues of population control or democracy, a strong, uncorruptable elite must bring the population bomb under control and make China capable of competing economically and militarily with the West and Japan.

On the other hand, the pro-democracy movement argues that the only way to resolve China’s tremendous difficulties is to expand, not retract, steps toward freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of movement, accountability of government through open and free elections and the non-discriminatory implementation of laws through an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances. China’s severe population problems can be handled by mor intensive efforts in general and sex education. Its economic problems can be dealt with by greater economic liberalism, involving a mix of public managers, private entrepreneurs and worker’s cooperatives with shared ownership and control.

China does not need to militarize. As Fang Lizhi, the pro-democracy spokesman and astrophysicist, argues, China should call for the mutual renunciation of force as a means to settle its dispute with Taiwan. Additionally, China’s claim to Taiwan, its naval and nuclear-weapons buildup and its arms sales abroad can only further militarize the situation in Asia, impelling Japan, India and other states to augment their naval and military capabilities--a situation no one in Asia wants to see.

The new authoritarian claim that China lacks a democratic tradition is historically inaccurate. The fledgling movement for democracy was initiated between 1905-14, but unfortunately failed as China went into the period of “war lords.” While both the movement for democracy and the new authoritarians believe that the formation of a new middle and entrepreneurial class should be encouraged, such a class must not be able to take the law into its own hands, as implied by the new authoritarians. Thus, to prevent such a class from ruling “from above,” the movement for democracy must carefully interact with and educate grass-roots Chinese society to understand the process, principles and structures of democracy. It should study the strides taken by Chinese democracy in the past, and attempt to enlarge upon some of those successes and, of course, seek to avoid similar mistakes.

Without democratic accountability, the “new authoritarianism” differs very little from its Maoist predecessor. It’s time to give Chinese democracy a chance.