Image sourced from CGTN America via YouTube.
In an interview with ThePrint’s Shekhar Gupta in New Delhi in October 2020, the then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, remarked of China, “It is the Party that is fomenting the challenge, not the hundreds of millions of Chinese that would like to come out from under the jackboot of the Chinese Communist Party” 1. Secretary Pompeo’s declaration effectively summarizes the manner in which the erstwhile Trump Administration – as well as a substantial portion of the American intelligentsia – view China. In particular, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the ‘people of China’ are considered two separate entities. Furthermore, it is believed that these very ‘people’ will eventually rise up to revolt against the CCP and establish what the West thinks will constitute a democratic system of governance. As a result of this, China will transition from the mercantilist and expansionist state it is today to a ‘responsible’ member of the global community. This line of thought, however, whilst being decidedly well intentioned and Pollyannish, may not be grounded in reality.
Firstly, the belief that a significant fraction of the Chinese population may form a mass uprising in an attempt to topple the present government, assumes that this populace yearns to be a part of a democratic society – a yearning that stems from an assumption that the Chinese society at present is inherently undemocratic. Such an assumption is flawed, for the current Chinese system of government does exhibit elements of deliberative democracy. Secondly, Chinese notions of democracy are radically different from Western notions of democracy. Moreover, even if we were to believe that China will eventually become a liberal democracy by Western standards, it would be incorrect to presume that China will cease to be the maximalist entity it is today – as shall be demonstrated in this article.
To assert that the CCP does not enjoy a plurality of support in Chinese society, and that its authority stems from the use of totalitarian mechanisms by an entrenched elite, would be inaccurate. In order to understand Chinese polity, we must first understand that “Chinese thinking is shaped in part by Communism but embraces a traditionally Chinese way of thought to an increasing extent; neither is intuitively familiar to Americans” 2. This means that we can never claim to have an accurate understanding of the Chinese system as long we evaluate it through Western values. Thus, while China may seem to constitute a non-democratic entity from an outsider’s perspective, it is important to note that both the CCP as well as large sections of the Chinese society believe that it is a democratic state – that is, as per Chinese notions of democracy, which are primarily deliberative rather than competitively electoral in nature.
China has a collaborative sense of democracy, instead of a Western liberal individualistic rights based framework of democracy. Western notions of democracy have a distinction between the people and the state, which governs the people, prompting analysts to separate the Chinese state led by the CCP and the Chinese people in their analyses of the country. This distinction, however, is not as prominent in the Chinese notions of democracy which have been co-opted by the CCP. The CCP promotes a model of deliberative democracy “whereby citizens share their views with the government through official channels. These discussions take the form of public hearings, online suggestion boxes, and long citizen questionnaires” 3. According to He Baogang, an advisor to such initiatives in some villages and townships in China, “deliberative democracy lets people add their voices to concrete policies, which makes government more responsible and accountable, without challenging the CCP . . . it involves people in the decision-making process but does not change the power structure” 4.
The model of deliberative democracy followed by CCP blurs the distinction between the citizens and the state by making citizens believe that they are an active part of the decision making process. Furthermore, China has held elections at the village level since 1980, and more than 900 million of its citizens had successfully voted by 20085. These elections compleplement the deliberative elements of democracy at the lower levels of government. The officials that are elected through these elections are supervised by China’s hyper-efficient and politically meritocratic bureaucracy, which in turn exercises collective leadership through a hierarchy of politburos6. “All higher levels of government are still indirectly elected with candidates appointed by the government, which is deemed to be a system of democratic election with Chinese characteristics”7. Although this system ultimately grants the real power to the state machinery that is operated by unelected bureaucrats who abide by the ideology of the CCP, the CCP positions itself as helming a ‘democracy’. As Li Junru, the former Vice President of the Party School of the Central Committee of the CCP, wrote in an article for the state-run Global Times on China’s unique vision of a democracy, the CCP “combine(s) electoral democracy with consultative democracy . . . The People’s Republic of China has been a democratic country.” 8
The above-mentioned sentiment is echoed by a number of Chinese citizens, who advocate for an increased proliferation of ‘democratic’ values, yet support the CCP’s grip on power. In a survey published in Johns Hopkins University Press’ Asian Perspective and conducted among major Chinese intellectuals in Beijing and Shanghai, an overwhelming majority of respondents disproved of a multi-party system and vied for intra-party democracy within the CCP, agreeing that China’s democracy must be wrought up under the leadership of the CCP, and distinct from Western ideals of democracy9. While it is important to note that it is difficult to accurately gauge the true sentiment of the plurality of the Chinese populace, if we take into account the historical role of the intelligentsia as a vessel of public opinion, it can be presumed to a certain extent that a number of Chinese people view their country as being ‘mostly democratic’ by their standards of a deliberative democracy – and at most, desire increased intra-party democracy within the CCP. Thus, a mass uprising advocating for democratic values consequential enough to topple the CCP’s regime is rather unlikely. Alternatively, in several countries, demonstrations against the government begin as a result of citizens suffering from economic woes. Prominent examples of such suffering are Venezuela and Lebanon. However, an uprising engendered by economic woes seems implausible in China, as the Chinese economy appears to be doing reasonably well as compared to the rest of the world. Furthermore, it is strong enough to ensure that a majority of its citizens are able to improve on or preserve their standard of living.
For the sake of argumentative clarity, let us presume that China does transform into a vibrant multi-party democracy. Will such a transformation impel a change China’s foreign policy? Will the democratic regime view the international political system differently? It can be ventured with adequate certainty that the answer to these questions is in the negative. The reasons can be found in China’s Sino-centric worldview, which is rooted not in the CCP’s Maoist leanings but China’s cultural fabric, which is an entity that is inseparable from any government that holds the reins of power in Beijing.
In Martin Jacques’ book When China Rules the World, it is pointed out that China is a civilizational state and not a nation state, and that has an unbroken link to a past that stretches back more than two millennia10. Due to the sheer weight of its historicity, it becomes rather difficult for China to integrate Western values into its societal and political structures. Thus, while most of the world order is built on the back of the principles of Westphalian sovereignty, China sees the world in terms of the tributary system that is posited on the presence of satellite states. In such a system, in which one member state accepts another member state as its superior, a form of a loose reign policy prevails11. As a consequence of this policy, for two thousand years, China has viewed itself as the predominant power in the region and has taken steps to ensure the perpetuation of this status quo. Even today, it finds no wrongdoing in violating other countries’ sovereignty in order to impose its regional hegemony. This stance is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
China’s foreign policy actions also stem from what Martin Jacques has described as China’s ‘middle kingdom mentality’. Historically, China has persistently viewed itself as the centre of the world – a view that has manifested in the twenty-first century in the form of its heavily Sino-centric foreign policy. “The most pervasive underlying Chinese emotion is a profound, unquestioned, generally unshakeable identification with historical greatness. Merely to be Chinese is to be part of the greatest phenomenon of history”12. This mentality causes China to have a deeply hierarchical sense of the world – one in which it must occupy a pivotal position. As has been mentioned, such beliefs are an integral part of Chinese culture and hence, any government in China will invariably harbour these views. In other words, China, which has such a hierarchical sense of the global order, is bound to possess an imperialistic outlook. Thus, attributing China’s aggressive foreign policy solely to the CCP would not be correct. While it is true that the CCP’s authoritarianism does take these beliefs to a new level of extremism, “it is also true that these narratives are not simply created out of thin air. For the Party-state to use them, they have to resonate with the broader population”13. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that China under a democratic government would be a belligerent state, much like it is at present under the CCP.
In conclusion, the belief that the Chinese people can be separated from the CCP and by extension, China’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy, is misplaced; it is highly unlikely that the CCP will be replaced by a more democratic polity in the near future. Furthermore, even if it is displaced by such an entity, the newly instituted government will, in all likelihood, continue to follow a foreign policy not very different from that of the CCP. In other words, the singularity of China’s foreign outlook is here to stay; thus, the best way to approach China is not by divorcing the CCP from the Chinese people but rather, by striving to analyse the psyche of the country as a whole.
Agnidh Ghosh is a freshman who is a prospective Economics major and International Relations minor. He is interested in behavioural economics, econophysics, and public policy.
- ThePrint, India Shouldn’t Feel Alone, Or Left To Fend For Itself: US Sec Of State Pompeo Tells Shekhar Gupta., Video, 2020, https://youtu.be/NY5c5wOUj0M.
- Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York University Press, 2014), 226.
- Rebecca Liao, “China’s Experiment With Deliberative Democracy”, ChinaFile, May 27, 2014, https://www.chinafile.com/China-Experiment-Deliberative-Democracy.
- Daniel Bell, “Chinese Democracy Isn’t Inevitable”, The Atlantic, June 2, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/chinese-democracy-isnt-inevitable/394325/.
- Wei Lin, “The Translated And Transformed Concept Of Min Zhu (Democracy And Republic): A Political Cultural Influence On Translation”, International Journal Of Languages, Literature And Linguistics 4, no. 4 (December 2018): 306, doi:10.18178/ijlll.2018.4.4.191.
- Junru Li, “West Fails To Understand China’s Democracy”, Global TImes, December 24, 2019, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1174652.shtml.
- Jung-Nam Lee, “Perceptions Of Democracy Among Chinese Intellectuals: Evidence From Political Scientists In Beijing And Shanghai”, Asian Perspective 37, no. 3 (2013): 353-354, doi:10.1353/apr.2013.0013.
- William A. Callahan, “Sino-Speak: Chinese Exceptionalism And The Politics Of History”, The Journal Of Asian Studies 71, no. 1 (2012): 33-55, doi:10.1017/s0021911811002919.
- Ji-Young Lee, China’s Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination (repr., Columbia University Press, 2017), 33.
- Lucian W Pye, The Spirit Of Chinese Politics (repr., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 50.
- Merriden Varrall, “Chinese Worldviews And China’s Foreign Policy”, Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2015, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/chinese-worldviews-and-china-s-foreign-policy.
Bell, Daniel. “Chinese Democracy Isn’t Inevitable”. The Atlantic, June 2, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/chinese-democracy-isnt-inevitable/394325/.
Callahan, William A. “Sino-Speak: Chinese Exceptionalism And The Politics Of History”. The Journal Of Asian Studies 71, no. 1 (2012): 33-55. doi:10.1017/s0021911811002919.
Kissinger, Henry. World Order (UK). New York University Press, 2014.
Lee, Ji-Young. China’s Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination. 1st ed. Reprint, Columbia University Press, 2017.
Lee, Jung-Nam. “Perceptions Of Democracy Among Chinese Intellectuals: Evidence From Political Scientists In Beijing And Shanghai”. Asian Perspective 37, no. 3 (2013): 333-361. doi:10.1353/apr.2013.0013.
Li, Junru. “West Fails To Understand China’s Democracy”. Global TImes, December 24, 2019. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1174652.shtml.
Liao, Rebecca. “China’s Experiment With Deliberative Democracy”. ChinaFile, May 27 2014. https://www.chinafile.com/China-Experiment-Deliberative-Democracy.
Lin, Wei. “The Translated And Transformed Concept Of Min Zhu (Democracy And Republic): A Political Cultural Influence On Translation”. International Journal Of Languages, Literature And Linguistics 4, no. 4 ( December 2018): 303-308. doi:10.18178/ijlll.2018.4.4.191.
Pye, Lucian W. The Spirit Of Chinese Politics. Reprint, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.
ThePrint. India Shouldn’t Feel Alone, Or Left To Fend For Itself: US Sec Of State Pompeo Tells Shekhar Gupta. Video, 2020. https://youtu.be/NY5c5wOUj0M.Varrall, Merriden. “Chinese Worldviews And China’s Foreign Policy”. Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2015. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/chinese-worldviews-and-china-s-foreign-policy.