Democracy in China

Sanne van Oosten

While traveling through China we were surprised to hear how many people openly dared to criticize the Chinese government. Without asking anything, many people we met would begin a conversation about what their government is doing wrong. Of course, they know what Westerners think and know we are safe conversation partners, but we were surprised nevertheless. People mostly criticize the lack of freedom of speech and the high amount of corruption amongst government officials, but they never allude to wanting a democracy by any Western standards.

Many Westerners are of the opinion that a government that is not democratically chosen cannot in any way enjoy a sense of popular legitimacy. However, when conducting opinion polls in both China and the West it turns out that people are much more satisfied with their government in China than in any other Western nation. In an opinion poll conducted by Pew Research in March 2010 people from all over the world were asked how satisfied they were with their government’s handling of the economy. 91 percent of the Chinese respondents answered they were either very or moderately satisfied with the way their government was handling the economy, compared to only 48 percent in the United States and 45 percent in the United Kingdom.

Then why are all these people complaining about their government? After asking people about this, they never alluded to wanting a new government, all though they did want some changes. Interestingly these changes never included wanting to go to the ballot box for any kind of elections. And I don’t blame them. Whilst traveling through China I follow the European news as well and all I see are a bunch of lame politicians who are scared to make any decisions in the financial crisis for fear that their electorate will punish them for it in the next elections. I still believe in democracy, but in this specific period we are seeing a whole lot of downsides to democracy. Lack of steadfastness and vigilance are only a few of the downsides. Why would they want that?

Still, we’ve heard many Chinese people complaining about their government’s lack of internet freedom and freedom of speech. Whenever there is any popular uprising against the government in China, it is cracked down on hard. Dissenting voices will not be tolerated and this is a feat of the Chinese government that we hear many people complain about. Another chronic characteristic that we’ve heard people complain about is the culture of guanxi, I scratch your back and you scratch mine, the Chinese variant of governmental corruption. Still, they never seem to keen on any kind of going-to-the-ballot-box-democracy.

Many people in the West believe that as China modernizes it is inevitable that they will democratize in the classic sense of the word. I disagree. Just like how I’ve argued that China will not become more Western as it becomes more modern (read more about converging tendencies of globalization here), China will probably also not take over any conventional form of democracy.

Although, long before Western-Europe practiced any kind of democracy, China had some of it going on. In Chinese dynasties throughout history, the country’s rulers were given the Mandate of Heaven. This right came with a considerable amount of duties. For if these duties were not carried out and the emperor had failed the people, they had the right to rebel. Showing that even in dynastic China, the government was imbued with democratic and popular elements, which was not the case in that time in most of Europe. The right to rebel is something the Chinese want, but the right to vote is something we haven’t heard any of them about yet. Maybe the idea that modernity and democracy go hand in hand is ready for some reevaluation. Maybe the ‘right to rebel’ is enough for the modern Chinese.

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