Democracy in China

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Democracy was a major concept introduced to China in the late nineteenth century. The debate over its form and definition as well as application was one of the major ideological battlegrounds in Chinese politics for well over a century.

Qing dynasty

The first introduction of the concept of modern democracy into China is credited to exiled Chinese writer Liang Qichao. In 1895, he participated in protests in Beijing for increased popular participation during the late Qing Dynasty, the last ruling dynasty of China. It was the first of its kind in modern Chinese history. After escaping to Japan following the government's clampdown on anti-Qing protesters, Liang Qichao translated and commented on the works of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Hume, Bentham and many other western political philosophers. He published his essays in a series of journals that easily found an audience among Chinese intelligentsia hungering for an explanation of why China, once a formidable empire of its own, was now on the verge of being dismembered by foreign powers. In interpreting Western democracy through the prism of his strongly Confucian background, Liang shaped the ideas of democracy that would be used throughout the next century. Liang favored gradual reform to turn China into a democratic constitutional monarchy.

Liang's great rival among progressive intellectuals was Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a republican revolutionary. Sun felt that democracy would be impossible as long as the Qing monarchy still existed. Democracy was part of his platform, the Three Principles of the People (三民主義) - the principle of the people under 1 nation (nationalism), the principle of the people's rights (democracy), and the principle of the people's livelihood and well-being (civility, decency and respect). Like Liang, Sun agreed that democracy, or at least universal suffrage, could not happen overnight in a country with high illiteracy rates and lack of political consciousness. Sun's Three Stages of Revolution called for a period of "political tutelage" where people would be educated before elections can occur.

Responding to civil failures and discontent, the Qing Imperial Court responded by organizing elections. China's first modern elections were organized by Yuan Shikai for Tianjin's county council in 1907. In 1909, 21 of 22 provinces, with the exception being Xinjiang, held elections for provincial assemblies and municipal councils. Requirements were strict; only those that passed the imperial exams, worked in government or military, or owned 5000 yuan of property may vote or run for office. This essentially limited the electorate to the gentry class. Hundreds of thousands voted and the winners were overwhelmingly constitutional monarchists, followers of Liang Qichao. The provincial assemblies elected half of the 200 member national assembly, the other half was selected by regent Prince Chun. All of these assemblies became hotbeds of dissent against the Qing as they were protected by freedom of speech.

Republic of China, 1912–1949

When the 1911 Revolution began, it was the provincial assemblies that provided legitimacy to the rebels by declaring their independence from the Qing Empire. The national assembly also issued an ultimatum to the Qing court. Delegates from the provincial assemblies were sent to Nanjing to publicly legitimize the authority of the provisional government of the Republic of China founded on 1 January 1912. They later also formed the provisional senate. The limited acts passed by this government included the formal abdication of the Qing dynasty and some economic initiatives.

In late 1912, national elections were held with an enlarged electorate, albeit still small proportionally to the national population. Sun's Nationalist Party dominated both houses of the National Assembly. Song Jiaoren, the incoming Nationalist prime minister, was assassinated in March 1913 before the assembly's first session. A police investigation implicated sitting prime minister Zhao Bingjun while popular belief was that provisional president Yuan Shikai was behind it. This led to the failed Second Revolution against Yuan. Victorious, Yuan forced the National Assembly to elect him president for a five-year term then purged it of Nationalists. Without a quorum, the assembly was dissolved.

After Yuan's death in 1916, the National Assembly reconvened until it was dissolved again the following year by Zhang Xun's coup attempt to restore the Qing. Prime Minister Duan Qirui refused to reconvene the National Assembly, opting instead to hold elections for a new assembly more favorable to him. As a result, a rump of the old assembly moved to Guangzhou to start a rival government in southern China. In northern China, 17 provinces elected a new assembly dominated by Duan's Anfu Club in 1918. This new assembly was dissolved following Duan's defeat in the Zhili-Anhui War of 1920.

President Xu Shichang organized elections for a third assembly in 1921, but with only 11 provinces voting it never had a quorum and thus never convened. That was the last attempt to hold national elections until 1947. All assemblies were dissolved after the Nationalists' Northern Expedition.

The formation of the Nationalist one-party state in 1927 implemented the late Sun's "political tutelage" program, which forbade elections until the people were considered properly educated. All other parties were kept out of government until 1937, when the impending Second Sino-Japanese War led to the United Front and the formation of the People's Political Council which included the smaller parties. In 1940, partly in response to tensions in the United Front, Mao Zedong offered the new Communist Party doctrine, New Democracy. New Democracy was an intermediary stage unlike western parliamentary, electoral democracy but not yet communism. After the war, the Nationalist's "political tutelage" ended with the promulgation of the Constitution of the Republic of China. The 1947 National Assembly and 1948 legislative elections were boycotted by the Communists which held most of northern China. As a result, the Nationalists and their junior coalition partners, the Chinese Youth Party and China Democratic Socialist Party, won.

People's Republic of China, 1949–present

The People's Republic of China was initially based on Mao's concept of "New Democracy", not the immediate "dictatorship of the proletariat". Soon, however, Mao called for establishing the people's democratic dictatorship. Starting in the 1980s, in the period of Opening and Reform, the government organized village elections in which several candidates would run. However, each candidate was chosen or approved by the Party. Higher levels of government are indirectly elected, with candidates vetted by the government. As a result, the highest levels of government contain either Communist Party members, their United Front allies, or sympathetic independents. Opposition parties are outlaweds.

Chinese who supported the Communist Party or held anti-democratic perspectives had long expressed skepticism towards Western style democracy as incompatible with traditionalist Chinese culture. They hold that government is legitimate not when people influence it but when it represents their higher interests. Leaders of the post-Mao reforms in the 1980s argued that the Party's record under Mao was bad, but that the Party reformed without being forced. The American political scientist Andrew Nathan concluded that "the reforms aimed to change China from a terror-based, totalitarian dictatorship to a 'mature,' administered dictatorship of the Post-Stalinist Soviet or Eastern European type." "Democracy" would not involve elections or participation in decision making but "the rule of law", which was based in procedural regularity in the exercise of power.[1]

In the spring of 1989, student leaders of the Chinese Democracy Movement expressed demands for democracy in terms which deliberately recalled the demands of the May Fourth Movement. Intellectual leaders such as Liu Xiaobo and Fang Lizhi supported their calls for participation in government and procedures to fight corruption.

In December 2008, more than 350 intellectual and cultural leaders, including Liu Xiaobo, issued Charter 08. The Charter said China remains the only large world power to still retain an authoritarian system that so infringes on human rights, and "This situation must change! Political democratic reforms cannot be delayed any longer!"[2]

Special Administrative Regions

Although mainland China is currently far away from a full-fledged civil democracy, Hong Kong and Macau as Special Administrative Regions do have some essences of liberal democracy.

As European colonies, both were denied democratic governments until very late in the colonial period. Hong Kong got its first elections in the 1980s, and Macau in the 1990s. Both Hong Kong and Macau have legislatures; 35 of Hong Kong's 70 legislators are directly elected, as are 12 of Macao's 29. Also, like grassroots elections in China, Hong Kong does hold elections for the district counsel, which act as consultants to the government.

In 2014, Hong Kong experienced massive protests against the Chinese government's decision to not allow full universal suffrage, as the candidates have to be approved by a committee in the Communist Party.[3]


  1. Andrew J. Nathan. Chinese Democracy. (New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1985). ISBN 039451386X. pp. 227-228.
  2. Macartney, Jane (10 December 2008). "Leading Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, arrested over freedom charter". London: Times Online. Retrieved 10 December 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "At least 34 injured as police and protesters clash in Hong Kong". CNN.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Nathan, Andrew (1985). Chinese Democracy. New York, USA: Knopf. ISBN 0-394-51386-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Daniel Bell, East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).
  • Daniel Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006).
  • Edmund S. K. Fung, In Search of Chinese Democracy: Civil Opposition in Nationalist China, 1929-1949 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Cambridge Modern China Series). xviii, 407p. ISBN 0-521-77124-2
  • Liu Jianfei (刘建飞), Democracy and China (Beijing: New World Press, 2011). 178 p. ISBN:9787510412240