Is Democracy Incompatible with China?

"The Chinese are no different than people elsewhere,
and have minds with which to think and aspirations and hopes and dreams..."

Political Prisoner
Oppose the government and go to jail!
Do the Chinese people really want to be free?
It is a good question. An absolutely vital question.

"No man is good enough to govern
another man without that other's consent."

Abraham Lincoln

At 11:25 AM 3/5/97 -0800, Chris wrote:


I read your e-mail conversation with 'dispise' and it is my contention that the majority of chinese people (still the rural peasant masses) don't really care what happens to the students of Beijing.

A poor Sichuan farmer cares only of his land and feeding his family and carving out a little niche for himself and continuing his line. "Chai mi you yan" Basic daily necessities. This is a staple throughout Chinese history and it is not that much different today.

China's slaughter of the student in Beijing is not uncommon of the supression seen in the past. These people were demanding the overthrough of the government. Forceful intervention would have been an option in this country too. The much more "representitive" Chaing Kai Shek slaughtered thousands of Communist guillas. In the early stage of the revolution, Deng and his comrads fled to Paris to preserve their lives. The knife cuts both ways. Our government slaughtered the Indian by the hundreds of thousands, killed 650,000 of its own to impose the North's social and economic will, and has been embroiled in bloody and riotous civil desputes throughout it's history.... But drawing similarities between the West and China in a dangerously inaccurate method for determining future outcomes or deciding the way things ought to be. Our model of social development is far from a tracable overlay to the social development of China.

Fighting for human rights is an enviable endeavor, but these things are so ingrained into us and we are so far removed from developments in China that your pleas fall on deaf ears. To truly effect change you should travel to China. You will find that there are many like you but many more who are not.

here and there,


      Dear Chris,

      Yes, I do think there are many people in China who earnestly desire to be free. I am sure you will find many people who are also apathetic, but those are precisely the people I would like to address.

      Abuses have indeed happened in China in the past, as well in almost every country of the world. For example, you mention the slaughter of American Indians and a highly eclectic interpretation of the American Civil War. I would suggest, however, that this is not what people remember as great in American history. And when I mean people, I say people from all over the world - not only Americans.

      I have no illusions that illiterate peasants from the Chinese countryside are going to read my webpage. However, young people studying abroad and students who know how to get across a firewall MIGHT read it and MIGHT be influenced. Those are the people who are important. Those are the people who will be the future of China. An increasing standard of living will bring China into greater contact with the outside world and its influences, and the poor peasant who sees the world as ending at the border of his farm will be much less important in the future than cosmopolitan and educated Chinese who have traveled abroad and have access to the Internet.

      During a couple of heady weeks in 1989, China came very close to being a different kind of place. Students came close to toppling the government there and establishing a more pluralistic and representative government. They built a Goddess of Democracy and demanded that the government open up to change and rocked the very structure of the oppresive Communist Chinese power structure. History knows quite well how that turned out. Now when you tell me that those brave souls were somehow un-Chinese or that they were simply misapplying Western ideas to China that it does not suit, I think you are underestimating badly a goodly number of Chinese and the idea of democracy. I have visited, e-mailed, and spoken with many Chinese who even today in the face of grave personal risk dare to speak their mind. People of conviction who believe that, yes, ideas and concepts such as "FREEDOM" are important. And they are "Chinese" as anyone else.

      I have no doubt that if I were to move to China I would meet plenty of people steeped in the Confucist ethic which holds power coming up from the people to be anathema - that the people need someone to command them for their own good. They would argue that democracy is "irresponsible" and that it would only lead to chaos in China. And they probably have a pretty closed mind about it. However, I am sure I would meet plenty of people who were otherwise and dare to dream that their country might be a different place where traditional Chinese culture could meld with the heady wine of Jeffersonian thought to make a better place. It has happened in many other countries in this world in the last decade - even Asian ones (Taiwan, South Korea). Why not China? Democracy is always an ideal to be worked towards where the people can work WITH the government to make a better society. That is quite different than the China of today and yesterday where authority is heavy-handed and the role of the people is strictly to obey. Unfortunately, political change often seems to come in China in spurts. In the 1970's we had the Democracy Wall, the 1980's Tienanmen Square, and in the 1990's and 2000? Let us hope for a government very different from that which currently sits in Beijing.

      I am not an academic, politician, or journalist. I am a private citizen who put up a webpage on the WWW urging on those Chinese who might listen for a moment to not lose hope. It might be a flawed idea, but it is honest and lacking in a cynicism (which I detect in your letter) which makes the mere possibility of an improved world nothing more than the lost traveler's dream under the hill (to quote Blake).

      Very Truly Yours,



Cynicism? True, but this is how I approach most topics concerning east/west politics.

I do support your page and I think it's wonderful that you place you opinions on the web for people to read and respond. I did, however, detect a bit of high brow lecturing toward the pro-communist in your e-mail volley. This is the major reason for the cynicism.

A minor reason is that China can never be a western style democracy. They have a different path to follow. The whole reason the communist party is still in power is that not enough of the populous is concerned with the affairs of the state (domestic or international) to lend voice to significant change. The student and intellectual sectors are a very small slice of the pie.,and to correct you without cynicism, they were no closer to over-throwing the government or forcing some kind of civil policy change than Chicken Little was in convincing people that the sky was falling. Their uprising was crushed in hours and sputtered hopelessly for year. A wide-spread grass-roots movement would not have died so quickly. Even an organized and overpowering military could not subvert the power of the people. The power of the people was not behind the students. This is why authoritarianism works so well in China. People just don't care that much about others in far off provinces.

China is very factional. They don't have a solidified unity like we do here. They don't have the great homogenator (TV) and they never wished to be unified. If you removed the central government tomorrow you would have a return of the Warring States period. Power hungry generals from branches of the PLA would carve up the countryside and conscript labor and soldiers and march on neighboring states in a bloody power grab. The end result would again be forced unity, but a despot would still maintain authority.

It is my feeling that this ''warring states" scenario is much more likely than any peaceful evolution toward democracy.

Looking forward to your response.


      Dear Chris,

      You makes some good points about China's past and in its possible future. It is always difficult to try and predict the future - it is akin to grasping the wind. But I am not so convinced as you that China is historically preordained to despotism.

      China has indeed had a history of factionalism, poverty and a centralized government. The vast percentage of the country is agrarian and, as you claim, perhaps could care less about the world outside their province. However, China is by all accounts changing very rapidly. The Chinese economy is experiencing rapid growth and both foreign trade and foreign investment in China itself is booming. Especially in coastal areas, China is poised to enter the 20th century in a position of international economic strength. Along with a higher standard of living, China and Chinese culture will become much more cosmopolitan as more people travel and more foreigners through tourism and technology intermix with Chinese. Most importantly, look at the phenomenal growth of a confident middle class which will only look at a closed cabal of corrupt Party hacks as a burden and hindrance similar to how Western businessmen saw the European aristocracy at the beginning of the 18th century. Look, for example, at Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan which are making steps down the path to vital democracies - not to mention Japan. They are very international places and could serve as an example. Everyone worries about what will happen when China "swallows up" Hong Kong. Maybe it will be more important how Hong Kong influences the rest of China.

      It is probably true that masses of peasants continue to exert a negative influence on the possibility of democracy in China. Most peasants even if they hate the government are also afraid of it. I have received e-mails off this webpage saying, "Well, it is one thing to speak in favor of free speech, democracy, etc. in the United States, and quite another in China where it is so dangerous...." and they are, of course, completely right. Yet I would not write-off so quickly a whole generation of young Chinese who are studying in foreign universities, have access to the World Wide Web and e-mail, and are growing up in a world which is smaller every day. There is also a middle-class of entrepeneurs and small businessmen in China which is growing every day and which only a few years ago were as poor as anyone else that can be an effective force for positive change. They are going to chafe at the corruption and opression of the single party Chinese state as much or more than the peasantry. These are the people who tomorrow in China can decide its fate as they grow in numbers and feel their power.

      Freedom and democracy might be laying its head low in China today, but who knows what people of good conscience think privately? People have not forgotten Tienanmen Square and the people who died in Beijing during those few fateful days in 1989. Nobody will forget, even if they are too afraid to speak of it publicly.

      I remember listening to pessimists speak about the Soviet Union in the 1970's as if the commissars of that country would rule forever. Apologists or cynics would say, "Well, Russia has its own dynamic and the Soviet Union has its own problems, but it is not any of our business. People don't seem that unhappy and the secret police are very powerful. Maybe you can't really speak your mind freely there, but it is a big country which we don't want to upset. Moreover, there is business to be done and money to be made there!" It turned out most people were in fact unhappy with the Soviet government. In retrospect, plenty of Russians secretly wished to live under a different governmental system but feared to say so openly. I think the same is happening with China. Don't forget how a police state can cower an entire population into silence - even if that silence be only temporary.

      Unfortunately, the experiment with democracy in Russia seems to be unfolding rather badly - and for many of the reasons you say democracy would never work in China. With all humility, I submit that you may be right. I would be most curious to hear what you have to say about my webpage about democracy in Russia, as I think perhaps that is more germane to what we are talking about. The Russian people might squander their chance at freedom, but at least they will have had an opportunity. China has not even been given the chance. Democracy is not something one is given - one has to build it. I think authority in China cynical and patronizing in the extreme towards the masses of people; it feels it needs to command with cruel power and physical force the helpless and childlike masses of men who need control for their own good. And maybe they are right!

      I can hear the private thoughts of the high-ranking party official in China: "The average Chinese peasant does not want to be free. He wants me to make his decisions for him and is happier that way - even if he thinks otherwise. In fact, he would be miserable if he were free! He would come back to me in the chaos and violence and starvation of his own making and beg for me to take away his freedom!" And maybe he is right! But if so, one could not find a more damning critique of the Chinese people.

      However, I still believe in the possibility of democracy and I hope against hope that people in China and elsewhere might adapt it to local tradition and arrive at governmental arrangements which are more inclusive, tolerant, peaceful (democracies rarely attack each other), representative, and free. Maybe I am just "high-brow," idealistic, or even unrealistic, but I am only echoing the ideas of those Enlightenment thinkers such as Jefferson, Montesquieu, Franklin, and Locke who were so optimistic about the possibilities of mankind and human freedom and who in fact changed the world and continue to do so today. Their ideas are as fresh to me when I read them today as they were to others in the 18th century. In fact, I find them a breath of fresh air in the hatred-filled atmosphere of this our bloody 20th century! I can again hear the Chinese absolutist countering: "Those thin and false fairy tales about man and human nature and freedom and brotherhood! What foolishness and nonsense! Worse than nonsensical - they are dangerous!" They are, of course, very dangerous. Yet ideas such as those have inspired normally apathetic people to take more of an interest in politics and have helped make politics more representative in countries all over the world.

      If nobody believes in freedom and liberty and leaders do not come forth to lead, most assuredly the people will never rise up and fulfill what positive potential they have inside themselves. I have never been to the Chinese countryside, but I am not so sure that the peasantry once they get their own TV and gain a glimpse of the world outside will prove as provincial and apathetic as you claim. It is only a matter of time before they have their televisions and Internet hookups, too. Once he gets an absolute minimum of food and material comfort, even an uneducated man begins to think and wonder about the world around him, the government, and his place in society. How stupid do the leaders think are the people?

      Political freedom is the best foundation for economic growth and genuine mutual respect between a people and their leaders - between peoples worldwide. Democratic elections and an independent press are the best tools for keeping governments honest. In the context of her sophisticated and ancient culture, China has never traditionally had a strong tradition of corruption-free and honest government. In the United States, individual economic initiative combined with political freedom has helped to build a prosperous nation to which people (voting with their feet) immigrate to in large numbers from less auspicious locales worldwide.

      The Chinese patriot Dr. Sun Yat Sen, a believer in democracy melded into Chinese form, seemed to find something of value in democratic ideas. Chinese pro-democracy activist Wei Jingsheng, as well as many others who today sit in Chinese prisons for their beliefs, hope also for more for the Chinese people. Under Mao the following slogan was ubiquitous: "People are the masters of history." They meant to portray the communist party as following the people as they lead the way into the future. The slaughter at Tienannmen Square showed the world this lie and revealed the truth that in China the people are the masters only as long as they go along with the authorities. In reality, this makes them nothing more than lackeys. It is their job to obey and respect the leaders and not vice versa. The present political system will only bring about further centuries of absolutism and tyranny in China. The "People's" Chinese Communist Party has come to resemble nothing more than the feudal mandarins and traditional China political authorities which have robbed the famed Middle Kingdom for centuries. I doubt the Chinese people are as stupid as the Party thinks they are in this regard. He might not have a firm grasp on abstract political theory, but the average Chinese knows the local Party hacks screw him over daily and the whole construct of "socialism" today in China is a farce. Power to the people?

      I am not alone in hoping for a China where the people are free to choose the government or dismiss it if they should so wish. Anything less is a sham democracy.

"Let me respectfully remind these gentlemen [Party autocrats]:
We want to be masters of our own destiny. We need no gods or emperors."

Wei Jingsheng

      Perhaps you are correct that China cannot handle democracy and needs an iron-fisted central government. Maybe you are right that the majority of the Chinese people could care less about whether power be truly vested in the people or with the ruling autocrats. We will both have to wait and see. Don't forget that the increase in wealth in the last two decades has changed China more than any other force in the last two hundred years; what might have been true for China yesterday might not be true today or tomorrow. China is changing rapidly and the future is an open question dependent on political actors yet to take the stage. And don't forget that emerging middle-class...

      As for me, I side with Wei Jingsheng and consider him a hero to his country and a hero to the world. I think you would also in your heart of hearts, but just consider it too far fetched to believe that China might one day follow his lead. Yet the Chinese are no different than people elsewhere, and have minds with which to think and aspirations and hopes and dreams. The incredible increase in wealth in the country and relative alleviation of poverty will bring about greater expectations of the government in terms of freedom and representation. Perhaps some will read my webpage and catch a little of Jingsheng's idealism and not forget that he languishes in jail for what he believes in. Perhaps the page might help to change a few people's minds.

      Perhaps we are entering into a time of greater openness in China now that Deng Xiao Peng has died. I hope so. Even as your head tells you differently, can your heart not join with me in hoping this for China?

      Very Truly Yours,


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