A Path to Democracy: In Search of China's Democratization Model*

Article excerpt

China's transition is drawing worldwide attention. China started market economic reforms in 1978 and is rapidly closing its economic gap with the developed world. The Chinese public and Chinese leaders have started to debate and explore where China should go politically and how to get there. After examining the merits and weaknesses of four prevailing theories of democratization-modernization, social mobilization, cultural/social capital, and negotiation-pact transition theory-we conclude with an appropriate model for China's political future. We argue that (1) the conflict between the reform and conservative groups inside the communist regime will shape the process of China's democratization; (2) the hope of China's political future lies in continued economic development, a mature civil society, and the building of democratic political culture in society; and (3) the current intra-party democracy promoted by Hu and Wen signals a positive trend for China's future democratization.

Key words: China, Democracy - East Asia, East Asian politics


China is experiencing a transition. The economic reforms since 1978 have narrowed the industrialization gap between China and the developed world. However, its communist political system is still lagging far behind the trend of democracy in the world. The demise of the Soviet Union and the democratic transitions of Eastern European countries in the 1990s enlightened the Chinese people as to where to go; however, how to get there is still a question. The chaotic and, in some cases, tragic transitions of the former communist countries have cautioned the Chinese people to the effect that an unsuccessful political transition may mean turmoil and instability in China, and even catastrophes for the region or the world.

This article explores possible paths for China's democratization theoretically and empirically. First, we focus on defining democracy as we answer these questions: What is democracy? What are the differences in Western and Chinese understandings of democracy? Second, we examine the merits and weaknesses of four prevailing democratization models. Then we suggest a complex model for China's democratization. In conclusion, we argue that Chinese and Western perceptual and empirical differences toward democracy may persist into the near future. Nevertheless, the factional differences between the reform and conservative groups inside the communist regime will shape the process of China's democratization. In the end, the democratic future of China lies in continued economic development, a mature civil society, and construction of a democratic political culture in society.

What is Democracy? China versus the West

Democracy means, literally, rule by the people.1 However, how to rule and who are "the people" are two questions that have been intensely debated for centuries in the West. Simply put, there are two popular definitions of democracy in the West. First, democracy is seen as a means of state building, especially for selecting political leadership. This definition is also called a minimalist conception of democracy suggested by Joseph Schumpeter. For Schumpeter, "the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote."2 Schumpeter's conception of democracy is measured by the competitive, free, and multiparty election, which is named electoral democracy to differentiate it from liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy is a broader definition of democracy. In addition to the electoral means of state building, liberal democracy also stresses the end of state building-constitutional liberalism in Fareed Zakaria's terms. It refers to the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the protection of individual liberties.3 While electoral democracy focuses on the political liberty of people, liberal democracy stresses the civil liberty of people-freedom of expression, assembly, religion, and property. …


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