Democracy Is a Good Thing: Essays on Politics, Society, and Culture in Contemporary China/Globalization and Changes in China's Governance

By Womack, Brantly | The China Journal, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Democracy Is a Good Thing: Essays on Politics, Society, and Culture in Contemporary China/Globalization and Changes in China's Governance


Womack, Brantly, The China Journal


Democracy is a Good Thing: Essays on Politics, Society, and Culture in Contemporary China, by Yu Keping. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2009. xxxii + 219 pp. US$34.95/£19.99 (hardcover).

Globalization and Changes in China's Governance, by Yu Keping. Leiden: Brill, 2008. 275 pp. euro69.00/US$103.00 (hardcover).

These two books should establish Yu Keping, already a well-known public intellectual in China, as a major thinker and commentator on Chinese politics, society and intellectual currents in the English-speaking world. The essays display a remarkable breadth of interest, thoroughness of research and depth of reflection. Perhaps the most salient contribution is Yu's argument for incremental democracy in China, but his contribution does not reduce to a single theme. His research on village-level civil organizations, his musings on the tensions between modernization and cultural autonomy, and his intellectual histories of modernization and federalism are all worthy of close attention.

Democracy is a Good Thing is the better-prepared of the two anthologies. Cheng Li narrates Yu's career from his membership in the legendary 1978 university cohort and his later studies with Professor Zhao Baoxu at Peking University to his current positions as deputy director of the Translation and Compilation Bureau of the Central Committee and professor of politics at Peking University. Li also presents a clear and brief analysis of Yu's thinking on democracy. The book includes a bibliography of Yu's writings over the last ten years. By contrast, Globalization and Changes in China's Governance is a barebones collection, without index or introduction. Thus Democracy is the place to start, but Globalization's essays on governance and local level politics and society are also essential reading.

Democracy's thirteen essays are divided into four themes: political development, civil society, tensions between modernization and cultural autonomy, and the challenges of globalization. As Cheng Li's excellent introduction makes clear, the lead essay, "Democracy is a Good Thing", had an immediate and deep impact on China's leadership as well as on fellow intellectuals. The style of this brief work is characteristic of Yu's political thought, in that it presents a juxtaposition of considerations rather than a decisive argument. The structure of each paragraph, "Democracy is a good thing, but. . . ", is by no means a denial that democracy is a good thing. It is not even equivocal about the value and necessity of democracy. Rather, it positions democracy as a desirable but problematic field of governance issues. Yu's politics could be described as pragmatic and moderate, especially given his arguments elsewhere for incremental democracy, but he does not simply take a middle-of-the-road position. The leitmotiv of his research, as well as of his practical activities such as initiating the Local Government Innovation Awards, is to cope with the complexity of governance challenges in contemporary China rather than to propose a formulaic solution.

One of the main complexities is the emergence, or re-emergence, of civil society in China. Yu defines civil society as "a public sphere outside the spheres of government and the market economy that comprises all kinds of civic organizations not affiliated with government or business" (Democracy, p. 38). Civil organizations are unofficial, non-profit, relatively autonomous and voluntary. The main thrust of his empirical research is to categorize civil society and to explore its new salience. …

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