China’s Slow Road to Democracy

China is dealing with growing signs of social unrest and a budding civil society, but the central government’s power grip leaves little room for democracy.

Last updated March 7, 2008

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Introduction

In a February 2007 article, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao predicted China would continue in the “primary stage” of socialism for the next hundred years—considered by many a signal of Communist Party thinking about the slow-motion development of democracy. At the same time, a rise in social protests and nongovernmental organizations demonstrates Chinese popular demand for a more open society. But thanks to a burgeoning economy and clampdowns on press freedoms and dissent, experts say the central government in Beijing has an increasingly firm grip on power.

Has there been democratic reform in China?

Yes, but in small, carefully controlled experiments such as the following:

  • Village elections. Beginning in 1988, China allowed villagers to directly elect village leaders onto committees. Village elections now occur in some 930,000 villages, involving some 75 percent of China’s population, according to data from the Carter Center’s China Elections Project. But the project says the process is marred by corruption and voting irregularities.
  • Nomination of local Community Party officials. Reforms in the 1990s allowed citizens to participate in the nomination of local Communist Party officials. But the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), a body created by U.S. Congress to monitor human rights and the rule of law in China, says “the Party retains tight control over the candidate pool and the selection process.” Regulations dictate that voting totals should not necessarily determine nominees, and officials have the authority to remove names from nominee lists.
  • Public hearings on legislation. Chinese officials also allow public hearings to gain insight on legislative matters. In 2005, the National People’s Congress held its first public hearing, with the Congress selecting and soliciting opinions from twenty people, including academics and migrant workers, out of a pool of five thousand applicants for a hearing on raising the minimum taxable income. Activists and experts have used the public hearings to share information for environmental legislation and to protest development projects. However, public hearings have limited impact, given that they often occur close to the end of a regulatory process or when a development project is already underway.

Joseph Fewsmith, an expert in Chinese domestic politics at Boston University, says the above “innovations” often serve to solidify the Communist Party’s central authority. “I see them delaying democracy as much as promoting it,” says Fewsmith, who believes seemingly democratic processes check the power of local agents and improve governance without actually instituting Western-style democracy.

What is the role of social protest in China?

In recent years, China has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of social protests—riots, demonstrations, and mass petitions—caused in large part by growing inequality between rich and poor as well as rural and urban populations as China experiences an economic boom. Demonstrators protest against a variety of injustices, from the corruption of local officials to threats to farmers’ livelihoods caused by environmental damage to forced land seizures. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of protests rose from ten thousand to seventy-four thousand. There has since been controversy over counts, but some official statistics place the number as high as eighty-seven thousand for 2005.

“This isn’t a political democracy movement calling for the right to vote. This is people with a whole lot of grievances,” says Cohen.

Yet experts say the high number of demonstrations does not prove a push for democracy or a challenge to the central government, and security forces often conduct harsh crackdowns at the scenes of protests. “This isn’t a political democracy movement calling for the right to vote. This is people with a whole lot of grievances,” says Jerome A. Cohen, a CFR adjunct senior fellow and expert on the Chinese legal system. Instead, social protests serve as a safety valve in a country where there are limited institutional means to address complaints. “In an authoritarian system, rulers in Beijing have real trouble actually figuring out what’s going on at the local level,” says Carl Minzner, CFR international affairs fellow and an expert in Chinese domestic politics, in a podcast. He says local officials try to suppress information about local grievances in the interest of preserving their own jobs. For that reason, “Central leaders don’t necessarily know what’s going on until ten thousand local farmers make it out of a particular area and mount a collective protest,” Minzner says.

What is the role of petitioning in Chinese society?

Chinese citizens also lodge grievances with government authorities through petitioning. For decades, individuals have complained at xinfang (“letters and visits”) offices as a means to argue with government decisions. Petitioning, like social protests, rose in the decade leading up to 2004. In 2005, the central government passed a new regulation aimed at addressing and lowering the number of petitions. Beijing then announced that petitions had decreased by one million from a high point of 13.7 million in 2004. However, scholars hired by China’s government to examine the matter said only 0.2 percent of petitioners received a response in 2005. A February 2007 survey of 1,200 petitioners in Beijing to determine the effectiveness of the 2005 regulation found 71 percent of petitioners felt they had suffered greater retaliation or intimidation by authorities. Only 5 percent felt that local officials had taken their grievances more seriously.

Furthermore, human rights watchdog groups say authorities have taken advantage of major national events to crack down on individuals who travel to Beijing to present their complaints in the capital. Human Rights Watch reported that during the National People’s Congress in March 2007, security forces conducted raids in locations where petitioners sleep, detaining about seven hundred people.

What is the role of civil society in China?

Along with protests and petitioners, the number of Chinese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has increased over the past decade. In 1988 there were 4,500 registered NGOs in China, while by the end of 2007 there were 346,000. Counting unregistered organizations the number jumps to as many as three million, based on 2005 estimates by the official Xinhua news agency.

Environmental organizations are especially prominent, representing “the vanguard of civil society development,” (PDF) writes Jennifer L. Turner of the Wilson Center. She says these groups once avoided confrontation by focusing on activities such as environmental education. But, in recent years, they have increased surveillance of industries and local governments and have stepped up pressure on the central government to intervene on environmental matters. NGOs played an important role, for example, in requiring greater transparency for dam-building projects on the Nujiang River in 2004.

“In an authoritarian system, rulers in Beijing have real trouble actually figuring out what’s going on at the local level,” says Minzner.

Chinese NGOs have limited autonomy. Beijing requires NGOs to register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and to adopt government organizations as sponsors. The central government views unregistered NGOs as operating illegally. In the past two years, authorities have stepped up investigations of foreign and domestic groups operating in China. Furthermore, authorities have covertly pressured activists to stop working for a particular NGO or risk endangering its funding or registration. One AIDS activist pressured to leave an organization last year said the central government uses “soft methods to narrow the space NGOs can exist in. The authorities are worried civil society would bring about a strong force that challenges its rule” (Reuters).

Some experts say NGOs have gained greater influence as the state realizes it can not address the grievances giving rise to social protests across the country. NGOs increasingly oppose actions by local and provincial governments, writes Namju Lee, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Sungkonghoe University in South Korea, in an article for the Jamestown Foundation. Namju says NGOs develop autonomous networks and organize activities such as joint signature gatherings, actions that “would have been unthinkable only a few years before.”

What are prospects for democratic reforms?

Although many experts thought political liberalization would accompany economic development in China, the political leadership’s focus on a booming economy appears to have deepened the public’s faith in the central government and undermined dissent. “National income is up 9 percent a year. What’s not to like?” says Fewsmith. Over the past quarter century, the Chinese boom has lifted four hundred million people above one dollar a day income levels, according to the World Bank.

Another obstacle is the Communist Party’s ever tightening control. Beijing released its first white paper on political democracy two years ago but emphasized a “Socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics” with the Communist Party firmly in charge. To maintain its power grip, the central government holds firm control of the media and suppresses opposition movements, including the Falun Gong and the China Democratic Party (CDP), which was forced into exile after its 1998 attempt to set up the first opposition party in the history of Communist China. In recent years, the party has also strengthened the state secrets system, allowing authorities to arrest individuals said to endanger China by sharing state secrets, as a blanket approach to silencing opposition. A report by Human Rights in China, an international NGO, says the state secrets system has turned China into a “controlled society where critical voices pay a heavy price.”

When the party does not suppress resistance, it co-opts opposition. Ying Ma, a former fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, writes in Policy Review that “By doling out everything from party membership to senior government positions to financial perks, the party has rendered moot the political threat” posed by intellectuals, private entrepreneurs, and technocratic reformers.

What are the chances for a democratic future in China?

Experts say, given the Communist Party’s power, democracy does not appear to be a short-term possibility. “Prospects for an organized challenge to the party or significant mass protests are very dim,” says CFR’s Cohen, because of the government’s expertise at dividing the opposition. In the July/August 2007 edition of Foreign Affairs, Azar Gat argues authoritarian capitalist powers such as China and Russia “may represent a viable alternative path to modernity, which in turn suggests that there is nothing inevitable about the liberal democracy’s ultimate victory—or future dominance.” In June, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who predicted the evolution of all states toward Western-style democracies in the 1989 essay “The End of History,” (PDF) told the International Herald Tribune the time frame for China turning democratic “has to be a lot longer.” In the next few decades, he said, “[T]he authoritarian system will keep getting stronger and stronger.”

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