Perceptions of Democracy among Chinese Intellectuals: Evidence from Political Scientists in Beijing and Shanghai

By Lee, Jung-Nam | Asian Perspective, July-September 2013 | Go to article overview
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Perceptions of Democracy among Chinese Intellectuals: Evidence from Political Scientists in Beijing and Shanghai


Lee, Jung-Nam, Asian Perspective


In this article I analyze through in-depth interviews and surveys Chinese intellectuals' opinions on the necessity, direction, timing, and method of democratization. I examine how Chinese intellectuals in China's two main cities perceive democracy and what direction the development of democracy is taking in China. Keywords: Chinese-style democracy, Chinese intellectuals, political reform, democratization, intraparty democratization.

By 2010 China had grown to be the second-largest economy in the world, and its gross domestic product (GDP) had reached $5,450 per capita at the end of 2011. Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin achieved over $12,000 per capita income, a level comparable to advanced countries. However, income levels were seriously unbal- anced. China's Gini coefficient was 4.98, making economic inequal- ity in that country among the most severe in the world. At the end of 2010, 180,000 demonstrations occurred nationwide relating to inad- equate social-welfare systems and bureaucratic corruption, reflecting serious discontent among ordinary people (Bloomberg Business- week 2011). In this situation, academics and bureaucrats have been speaking out about the importance of political reform and the neces- sity of democratization (Sun 2012; Wang 2012; Zheng 2012). Wen Jiabao used the word "reform" sixty times in his political report to the fifth National People's Congress in 2012 (Wen 2012b). In an interview with reporters at the closing session, he stressed the impor- tance of political reform, saying, "Economic reform cannot be real- ized without political reform, and the results of reform and openness policy in the last 30 years can be damaged seriously" (Wen 2012a).

The political reform that Wen Jiabao stressed does not neces- sarily mean democratic political reform. In reality the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations have emphasized the importance of reform within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the most important task of political reform rather than the multiparty system that some liberals seek (Zhao 2002). In addition, some Chinese aca- demics have asserted that the one-party system should be improved without democratization, thus creating a consultative rule-of-law regime (Pan 2002). Therefore, identifying Wen Jiabao's true inten- tion and meaning in calling for political reform has become a con- tentious issue. Some believe he was referring to constitutional democracy based on a multiparty system (Yang 2012), whereas oth- ers claim he meant introducing a rule of law based on a one-party system (Fang 2012).

Despite the ambiguity, recent Chinese leaders such as Wen and Hu have frequently stressed the importance of building democracy in China (Han 2008). Since prominent political scientist Yu Keping announced in the China Daily in autumn 2006 that democracy is a good thing (Yu 2009), many Chinese academics have also stated that democracy must be introduced to reform the Chinese political system (Cai 2007; Liu 2010; Yu and Chen 2012). However, schol- ars still have not reached any consensus on when, how, and in what direction democracy should be introduced. The Chinese govern- ment and most intellectuals assert that "Chinese-style democracy" (democracy unique to Chinese culture) should be implemented step-by-step; however, uncertainty exists concerning what aspects of this democracy would be unique to China. When will democracy be implemented? What will be the breakthrough in promoting democracy? Thus, seeking answers to these questions is necessary to examine the prospects for democracy in China.

In order to assess the development of Chinese democracy, most studies have examined how socioeconomic changes influence the future political systems of China and how gradual changes in Chinese political systems might induce democratization. However, I intend to evaluate the thoughts of Chinese intellectuals and polit- ical leaders about their democratization process-that is, their understanding of democracy.

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