Democrats within the Chinese Communist Party since 1989

Feng Chongyi. Journal of Contemporary China. Volume 17, Issue 57. 2008.

A widely held view is that since the 1990s democratic aspiration has been utterly marginalized in China, due to the effective suppression of the democracy movement, the rapid growth of the economy and the rise of nationalism, to the extent where democracy is no longer a quest by the ruling elite, nor is it attractive to the population in general. This article challenges this popular view. As a matter of fact, the discourse of democracy continues to flourish via the Internet and other means of communications, in spite of desperate suppression by the party-state; the civil rights movement has emerged as a new focus of the democracy movement in China; and the Chinese communist leadership has resumed the agenda of democratization due partly to the new activism of democracy.

The focus of this article is the discourse of democracy within the rank and file of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), rather than the democratization agenda of the Chinese communist leadership or the aspirations for democracy among the population in general. It argues that thanks to the similar social structure and historic trajectory, the CCP is experiencing a profound change similar to that of the communist party in the former Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years; that the process of the conversion of Chinese communists to liberals is well under way; and that sufficient intellectual resources have been accumulated for a democratic transition or a historical breakthrough of democratization in China.

Intellectual Development of Democrats within the CCP Since 1989

Chinese communist democrats can be defined as those CCP members who have shifted their belief from communism to liberal democracy and have been actively striving for a democratic transition in China. This faction within the CCP includes democrats who have completed the process of ideological transformation and established a firm belief in liberal democracy, and semi-democrats who have been pursuing the agenda of democratic reform without solid understanding and appreciation of liberal democracy.

The faction of Chinese communist democrats came into being in the 1980s and they are still active in the political arena, and have made remarkable advances in their intellectual and political endeavor. They were more visible in the 1980s when communist democrat elements existed in all echelons of the Party, with leaders like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Zhiyang at the top, theoreticians such as Wang Ruoshui and Su Shaozhi at the middle, and thousands or even millions of followers at the grass-root level. The purge of those leaders and leading theoreticians by the Party meant that they have been weaker since the 1990s, but the loss has been compensated by the greater depth of democratic beliefs and sophistication of their discourse on liberal democracy. Three breakthroughs can be readily identified: the open embrace of liberalism, the transcendence of nationalism, and the formulation of liberal ideas into concrete programs for democratization.

Most notable is their open break with the Marxist framework and the embrace of liberalism. We know that Chinese democrats in the 1980s, including most profound thinkers such as Wang Ruoshui, Su Shaozhi and Yan Jiaqi, and even most radical dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng, were confined to the Marxist framework in their quest for democracy, typically expressed as ‘socialist democracy and legality’. This limitation has been overcome by Chinese communist democrats since the late 1990s, when Li Shenzhi, a senior communist expert on international affairs and former vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with the rank of vice-ministerial level, solemnly claimed that:

After three hundred years of comparison and selection in the whole world since the age of industrialization, and particularly after more than one hundred years of Chinese experimentation, on the largest in scale in human history, there is sufficient evidence to prove that liberalism is the best, universal value. Today’s revival of the liberal tradition stemming from Beijing University will beyond doubt guarantee the emergence of a liberal China in the world of globalization.

This was the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China that the ideological system of liberalism was asserted as the guiding ideology for China, even by a high ranking CCP official, although many concepts of liberalism—freedom of speech in particular—had been advocated by pioneers of the Chinese democracy movement such as Hu Ping since the turn of the 1980s. After the publication of this short article, Li Shenzhi quickly became an opinion leader and mentor of Chinese liberals, who rapidly emerged as a visible force in the intellectual and political arenas.

Their conversion to liberalism also means that democrats within the CCP are no longer confined to so-called ‘socialist democracy’ guaranteeing the leading role of the CCP. The experience of the 4 June crackdown and the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe provided an opportunity for democrats within the CCP to reflect deeply on the illusion of ‘socialist democracy’, and they were awakened to the fact that the party-state had been deceiving itself and others in claiming communist one-party rule as a higher form of ‘democracy’. They sharply pointed out that the CCP under Mao’s leadership overthrew the Nationalist dictator only to supplant it with the CCP dictatorship, and Mao’s successors, the post-Tiananmen leadership, had maintained the despotic system and become more corrupt. Since the 1990s, based on their new found conviction that one-party dictatorship and democracy are not compatible, democrats within the CCP have categorically abandoned one-party rule for constitutional democracy (liberal democracy) with all of its standard features such as general elections, multi-party competition, safeguards of human rights, and checks and balances of power between legislative, executive and judiciary branches. To them, multi-party democracy is not only the only way out for China, but also the only way to save and regenerate the CCP. They share with Western democracy theorists the belief that democracy provides regime legitimacy, but they also have different rational for democracy. Stemming from their belief as well as their strategic consideration, usually they justify their call for democracy to their Party colleagues by claiming that democracy is the best institution to safeguard personal liberties against the tyranny as experienced in the successive purges in the PRC; that democracy is the best way to safeguard the power of the people and eliminate social inequality; that democracy is the only way to avoid social upheaval resulting from regime collapse and to maintain long-term social stability; and that democracy is the only viable way to root out structural corruption in China today.

The third impressive progress made by democrats within the CCP since the 1990s is the formulation of their liberal ideas into concrete programs for China’s transition to constitutional democracy. They are fully aware of the programs for constitutional democracy put forward by the Chinese democracy movement in exile, and democrats within and outside the CCP do take concerted actions in some activities such as protests against persecution of dissidents and the call for reversal of the verdict on 4 June. However, in spite of the common goal of liberal democracy, the democrats within the CCP have adopted an approach and strategy fundamentally different from that of the Chinese democracy movement in exile. Whereas the Chinese democracy movement in exile sees the political opposition (namely themselves) as the driving force for China’s transition to democracy, the democrats within the CCP cherish the hope that democratic elements within the CCP will initiate the process of democratization, building on the existing institutions conducive to democracy. To this end, leading democrats within the CCP, such as Shang Dewen, Fang Jue, Du Guang and Li Rui, have made heart-felt proposals to the Party leadership for a smooth political transition from within.

The death of political strong man Deng Xiaoping in early 1997 presented an opportunity for democrats within the CCP to call for democratization of the party-state. Shang Dewen is a senior professor in economics at Beijing University, and also a ‘veteran revolutionary’ (laogeming) who joined the People’s Liberation Army in the 1940s. In August 1997 when the Fifteenth National Congress of the CCP was at the last stage of preparation, Shang Dewen sent the Central Committee of the CCP a proposal Some Issues of the Political Reforms in China and Main Strategies. His proposals included revision of the constitution according to the demands of the market economy, general elections and the establishment of a parliamentary system, checks and balances of powers—virtually the political system of liberal democracy as established in the West, which was regarded by him as ‘political civilization’, and which he believed belonged to all humankind. In order to minimize resistance within the CCP, Shang Dewen promised that the backbone of the new political system would be the working class and the CCP. He also proposed to allow three years for preparation through consultation and discussions and another 12 years to complete the process of political transition to full democracy. Shang’s proposal was not accepted by the CCP leadership, but led to many interviews and coverage by international media. Almost at the same time, in November 1997, Fang Jue, a former deputy director of the planning commission of Fuzhou City, distributed a similar comprehensive program calling for the acceptance of mainstream international political norms, multi-party democracy, and direct elections of legislative bodies at all levels.

While their calls for further political reforms in the direction of democratization fell on the deaf ears of Jiang Zemin, then Party boss and known as the ‘core of the third generation leadership’, democrats within the CCP turned their attention to the ‘fourth generation leadership’ represented by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who became the General Secretary of the CCP and the Prime Minister of the PRC, respectively, in early 2003. Before Hu and Wen assumed power, in late 2002, Du Guang, former director of the Research Office of the Central Party School, widely circulated a pamphlet of over 100,000 words analyzing the reality and causes of communist despotism in China and calling for reforms to return enterprises to workers, land to peasants, government to citizens and culture to society. Concretely, he asked the CCP leadership to eliminate all Party institutions and functions that overlapped with those of the government, to deprive the Party propaganda departments at all levels of the power of censorship, to abolish the power of the CCP to intervene in the internal affairs of ‘democratic parties’, to grant independence to the army by separating it from the Party, to grant independence to ‘social organizations’ (particular the unions, youth league and women’s federation) by severing the administrative and financial ties of the Party, to allow genuine multi-candidate elections, to transform the people’s congress into genuine legislative power, to establish judiciary independence, and to guarantee freedoms of speech and association under a new government structure.

Following the same line of thinking, Li Rui, who served as deputy minister of Water Resources and political secretary to Mao Zedong in the 1950s, and as deputy chief of the Organization Department of the CCP Central Committee in the 1980s, introduced a proposal for comprehensive democratization at the Sixteenth National Congress of the CCP in November 2002. In the document, Li Rui divided his suggestions into ‘democratization of the Party’ and ‘democratization of the state’. In the area of ‘democratization of the Party’, Li asked for institutionalization in strictly sticking with the rule of a maximum two terms service for the standing politburo members, practicing competitive elections with multi-candidates for the positions of central committee members, politburo members, standing politburo members and the general secretary, assuring freedom of speech within the Party, making decisions on major issues through votes, and submitting the Party to the constitution of the state. In the area of ‘democratization of the state’, his requests included effective measures to guarantee the operation of the people’s congress as the highest power organ of the state and legislation, establishment of a ‘constitutional court’ to safeguard all the rights stipulated in the constitution, judiciary independence, promulgation of a law of political parties to clearly demarcate the power and responsibilities of the ruling Communist Party and other parties, free election of government at the township level, and restoration of the peasant association for rural residents to exercise equal citizen rights.

Last but not least, democrats within the CCP have achieved a better understanding of the tension between liberalism and nationalism, prioritizing human rights or personal freedoms over national wealth and power (guojia fuqiang). There is a clear indication that these Chinese communist liberals are endeavoring to substitute the nationalist project of ‘wealth and power’ for the project of individual freedom, universalism and globalization. In a politically charged environment where nationalism has become the most important tool of legitimization for the party-state, and where nationalist sentiment is running high among a population fed with highly selective information by the state propaganda apparatus, Chinese liberals warn against the potential dangers of nationalism in causing social disorder, in arousing xenophobia and chauvinism, in suppressing individual freedom and personal rights, and in sabotaging the project of democratization and modernization. They stress that modern Chinese nationalism has been informed by backward Sino-centrism, and it restrains China from learning from other civilizations and making progress. They call for an end to fanatical populist nationalism (or leftist xenophobia), which rejects liberal values in the name of patriotism and breeds hatred and violence against other nations; having established a firm belief in democracy and liberal values as the prerequisite for ‘rational nationalism’, they insist that no abstract ‘national interest’ exists apart from the sum of individual interests of the members of a nation, and this kind of ‘national interest’ can only be legitimated by democratic procedures; they argue for the superiority of universal values, such as peace, non-violence, democracy, rationality, freedom, and human rights in particular, over nationalism, and urge their compatriots to abide by these values when conducting international relations. Given that the statist tradition has dominated educated minds in China since the birth of state Confucianism, and given that since the nineteenth century several generations of Chinese liberals have fallen into the trap of nationalism and brought tragedy upon themselves by abandoning their beliefs in liberalism for the sake of national salvation or national construction, the gathering momentum of Chinese liberalism today may constitute the most profound change in Chinese intellectual development since the mid-nineteenth century.

Institutional Constraints of Post-Totalitarianism

There is a need to define the institutional context for the assessment of democrats within the CCP and prospects for democracy in China. It is clear that China is in a period of grand transition from a command economy to a market economy, from a traditional agrarian society to a modern industrial society, from autarchy to comprehensive engagement with international communities. However, we are less certain about political development in China, not least because the ruling party is pursuing obviously contradictory agendas, and is confused about its directions. With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during 1989-1991, China was left as one of just a handful of countries maintaining communist party rule. In spite of all the economic and social changes, some of them initiated by the party-state, politically the CCP seems still firmly committed to maintaining its dictatorship and to forestalling a democratic transition, despite democratic elements becoming visible both within the Party and in wider society. Fully aware that the democratic ideology has become the ‘spirit of the times’ and that it no longer has powerful contenders in the contemporary world, the party-state in China has declared war with the information revolution, appointing thousands of Internet police to check, clean, filter and block information on the Internet.

The post-Mao party-state in China has been widely classified as a ‘soft’ and ‘consultative’ authoritarian regime; at the same time, the regimes of its East Asian neighbors undergo democratic transition. The problem is that the current party-state in China is not merely authoritarian. There are things fundamentally different from the reality of a society under a normal authoritarian rule, such as the social control mechanism of danwei (work and resident unit) system, the ideology as a core of state power and the absence of civil society. Obviously, these are features and dynamics unique to a totalitarian or post-totalitarian regime.

Descriptive definitions of the term ‘totalitarianism’ accepted in political science include certain characteristics specific to that regime type, such as one-party dictatorship, ideological control, state control of entire economic and social life, state terror, massive mobilization, and the cult of personality. Using the criteria consisting of four dimensions to differentiate regime types—pluralism, ideology, leadership, and mobilization—Linz and Stepan identify a totalitarian regime with the simultaneous presence of these circumstances: the elimination of almost all pre-existing political, economic, and social pluralism; a unified, articulated, guiding, utopian ideology; intensive and extensive mobilization; and a leadership that rules, often charismatically, with undefined limits on power and great unpredictability and vulnerability for elites and non-elites alike. Mao’s China definitely conformed to this totalitarian model.

There are two major reasons why the concept of totalitarianism has not been popular in the field of China Studies, one ideological and the other methodological. Ideologically, especially during the late 1950s and the early 1960s when the ideals of socialism were still highly regarded, scholars on the left had strong reservations about a concept that lumped Nazism and communism together. Methodologically, many soviet-type regimes proved to be less monolithic and less static than is implied in earlier definitions of the totalitarianism. However, later versions have achieved a greater level of sophistication, absorbing in particular the knowledge gained by the paradigm of ‘group theory’ in analyzing the conflict of interests and dynamics of change within a totalitarian regime.

The analytical framework of post-totalitarianism developed by Linz and Stepan is of particular value in understanding the current regime in China. They do not see post-totalitarianism as a static regime. Based on their research on the former communist states in Eastern Europe, they defined post-totalitarianism as a continuum varying from ‘early post-totalitarianism’, to ‘frozen post-totalitarianism’, to ‘mature post-totalitarianism’. According to them, early post-totalitarianism is close to the totalitarian ideal type but differs from it on at least one key dimension, normally some constraints on the leader. The defining feature of ‘frozen post-totalitarianism’ is a mix of the persistent tolerance of some civil society critics of the regime and the maintenance of almost all the other control mechanisms of the party-state. In ‘mature post-totalitarianism’ there has been significant change in all the dimensions of the post-totalitarian regime except that politically the leading role of the official party is still sacrosanct.

China today displays many features typical of a post-totalitarian rather than an authoritarian regime, as summarized by Linz and Stepan. For example, there is no political pluralism, with the CCP legally accorded the leading role in the polity; the political leadership, though more technocratic in character, is still exclusively recruited from the structure created by the regime and lays emphasis on political loyalty, compared to an authoritarian leadership extensively co-opting other elite groups beyond the direct control of the regime and privileging professional and technical expertise; despite growing disjunction between official ideological claims and reality, the party-state in China still maintains a highly articulated ideology justifying the leading role of the Party and defining most aspects of society. In respect of democratization, a post-totalitarian regime means on the one hand the absence of the development of institutions beyond the party-state as building blocks for democracy, such as robust civil society, developed legal systems, representative bodies and semi-competitive elections, and on the other hand a greater vulnerability to collapse compared to an authoritarian regime, due to the inability to renovate leadership and stark disjuncture of ideology and reality. Employing the analytical framework of post-totalitarianism will help us to see clearer these previously overlooked phenomena, implications, and dynamics.

The Impacts of the CCP Democrats within the CCP

Mainly due to the post-totalitarian condition, democrats within the CCP have not been able to form a formal political faction, nor has the CCP leadership been able to eliminate them. It can be argued that, as the Chinese democracy movement in exile has become increasingly irrelevant to politics back in China, the CCP leadership has been forced by democrats within the CCP to engage in debates on the project of democratization in China. There are indications that there is a meaningful dialogue between democrats within the CCP and the current CCP leadership, and their interaction is not entirely negative.

The network of democrats within the CCP is a visible force capable of getting their voice heard on major issues and asserting their will through collective action occasionally. The post-totalitarian regime prevents them from forming a formal faction within the Party, but they form a group through personal networking and informal gatherings such as regular dinner parties and seminars. According to Li Shenzhi, he had ‘three circles’ of soul mates, roughly falling into three age groups of above 80 years old, around 70 years old and around 50 years old, meeting regularly once a month or once every two months. Li Shenzhi’s death on 22 April 2003 prompted the Chinese central authority to issue an internal circular banning public memorial meetings and memorial articles on him, but it also became a special occasion for democrats within the CCP to demonstrate their strength. In defiance of the ban from the Party, hundreds of memorial articles and poems with deep sorrows appeared on the Internet and 384 of them were immediately selected and published in two edited volumes in Beijing in May. Most notable among them were democrats within the CCP from Li Shenzhi’s ‘three circles’. The authors of above 80 years old include retired senior Party officials well-known for their promotion of political reform, such as Du Runsheng, Li Rui, Li Pu, Zhang Xuanshan, He Fang, Huang Nai and Hu Jiwei; those of around 70 years old include Zhu Houze, He Jiadong, Gao Fang, Du Guang, Mao Yishi, Tang Yijie, Wu Jinglian, Wu Xiang, Yang Jisheng and Zhu Zheng; those of around 50 years old included Ma Licheng, Qin Hui and Lu Yaogang. With the support of democrats within the CCP, the Unirule Institute of Economics, an unofficial research institution in Beijing, also defied the official ban and invited more than 100 participants to hold a public memorial meeting for Li Shenzhi on 27 June 2003. Other remarkable examples of their success included forcing the Party leadership to arrange a public funeral at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery for the deposed reformist leader Zhao Ziyang in January 2005, to arrange an official ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in commemoration of the deposed reformist leader Hu Yaobang in November 2005, and to lift the ban on the liberal journal Frozen Point in March 2006.

Apart from personal networking, they exercise their influence mainly through their publications. Their dissent views are usually published in the Internet, but also in the journals under their control or influence, such as Yanhuang Chunqiu [Chronicles of China], Zhongguo Shichang Jingji Luntan—Wengao [Chinese Market Economy Forum—Draft Articles], Tongzhou Gongjin [Advance in the Same Boat] up to October 2004 at least, and Bingdian [Frozen Point] up to January 2006 at least. The writings actively engage with the public, but their primary audience is their Party colleagues, the top leadership in particular. Their articles on the Internet reach out far and wide among the public, but their articles in journals like Yanhuang Chunqiu and their privately circulated publications target mainly the senior leadership. The discourse of democracy by democrats within the CCP has made unique contributions to the project of democratization in several ways. Firstly, this small group of senior pro-democracy thinkers has taken advantage of their seniority to minimize the constraints of censorship and keep the debate on China’s democratic future alive in the state media and within the Party leadership. They are allowed by the Party leadership to publish their views directly challenging the Party line in high profile journals such as Yanhuang Chunqiu and elsewhere, whereas less privileged authors have been banned from publishing on much less sensitive topics in China since the 1990s. Secondly, they promote the political and legal framework of liberal democracy as a necessary condition for social democracy, as pursued and practiced by social democrats in the West. The combination of liberal democracy and social democracy establishes a connection between democratization and socialist tradition, providing an easier step for the ideological transformation of communists. Thirdly, their personal experience of ideological transformation from a devoted communist and their efforts to revive the suppressed tradition of democracy within the Party have made the discourse on democracy more convincing among their Party colleagues, while the discourse by democracy activists external to the system (tizhiway) is routinely dismissed by the Party as propaganda of ‘hostile forces’. And fourthly, their persuasive power is also enhanced by using language more familiar and acceptable to their Party colleagues.

The influence of democrats among their CCP colleagues is hard to assess, not least because it as a function of the communist post-totalitarian regime to deny the opportunity of openly expressing support for liberal democracy by officials, who will be purged immediately if they do not conform to the political line set by the top leaders. However, for those officials, enthusiasm for ‘political reform’ is a subtle indicator of their yeaning for democracy. As shown in Table 1 below, according to the surveys carried out among the Party and state officials at the department level (next to the ministerial level) attending the training courses at the CCP Central School during the period 2001-2004, political reform ranked first in their focus of attention among the reforms in China, although the position has been overtaken by the reform of the income distribution system in the last two years because the distributive injustice has resulted in widespread social unrest. In the survey, the reform in administrative structure and personnel, which ranked second on the priority list, was deliberately listed separately from political reform, which was reserved for undertakings of democratization. This way of thinking was confirmed at a recent press conference by Premier Wen Jiabao who stated that ‘The two major reforms are: first, promote reform of the economic system with marketization as the goal; second, reform of the political system with developing democratic politics as the goal’. The surveys clearly indicate that there is a consensus among CCP leading cadres that lack of progress in political reform is the most important constraint on China’s further development. As rare exceptions some officials still in office did openly praise and call for democracy. Yu Keping, a high ranking academic official close to the current CCP leadership, recently published an article ‘Democracy is a good thing’, triggering enthusiastic discussions on the topic of democratization in China and within the CCP. In the article, he claims that ‘democracy is the best political system in human history’; that ‘democracy is itself a basic value of humankind’; that democracy is opposed by officials who prioritize their self-interests but supported by the broad masses of the people.

The new generation of CCP leaders represented by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are ambiguous in their political belief and ambivalent between democratization of the party-state and maintenance of the one-party dictatorship. On the one hand, they are apologists and defenders of the CCP dictatorship, thanks to their positions as rulers who monopolize the political power and the totalitarian doctrines they received during their formative years. On the other hand, they have also developed a tendency towards embracing humanism and democracy, partly because they experienced totalitarian disasters during their early careers, and partly because they were brought to prominence and nurtured by democratic leaders such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s, when democracy was the spirit of the time.

As a matter of fact, in 2003, when the power of the party-state was transferred to the hands of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, there was an excitement about, and expectation for, the ‘Hu-Wen New Deal’ (Hu-Wen Xinzheng). Major elements bringing about this excitement or expectation included a new philosophy of development compared to their predecessors, respect for the state constitution, efficiency in handling crises and programs working for the lower strata of society. The new philosophy is best embodied in the slogan ‘people as the end’ or ‘people first’ (yi ren wei ben), compared to the past Party lines that treated people as means for other ends, as expressed in the slogan ‘class struggle as the key link’ (yi jieji douzheng wei gang) or ‘development as the priority’ (fazhan shi ying daoli). A fuller statement of this philosophy was formulated in a major resolution of the Central Committee of the CCP: ‘Uphold people as the end, establish a development concept aimed at all-round, coordinated and sustainable development, and bring about an all-round development of economy, society and people’. Later on, the idea of ‘taking people first’ was further extended into and supplemented by the ‘scientific development concept’ and the theory of ‘building harmonious society’. At the press conference on 16 March 2007 Wen Jiabao declared:

That recent article of mine expounded the argument that socialism is not in conflict with democracy and the rule of law. I said democracy, the rule of law, freedom, human rights, equality, and fraternity are not something peculiar to capitalism. They are the joint achievements of civilization of the entire world during its long historical process and the common values pursued by mankind.

He also reiterated that ‘We must guarantee the people’s right to democratic election, democratic policy-decision-making, democratic management, and democratic supervision’. Given that the CCP was a ‘revolutionary party’, and given that so many Party officials and theoreticians had been purged since the 1980s for the crime of associating with the concept of humanism, it was a major intellectual and political development for the CCP leadership to establish humanist principles as the new Party line. Furthermore, acceptance of human rights and democracy as universal values is of particular significance for democratization in China, simply because universal suffrage is out of the question when the population is divided into ‘people’ and ‘class enemies’ according to the class theory of the party-state.

The words were even matched with deeds, to some extent. Upon assuming the position as the CCP general secretary, Hu Jintao immediately organized a Politburo study session on abiding by the state constitution, which promises freedom of expression and association. In handling the crisis of the SARS epidemic in early 2003 when they had just climbed to the top, the Hu-Wen leadership took prompt measures to ensure greater transparency of the media and sack the health minister and the mayor of Beijing, who had covered up the news of the epidemic. The state constitution was amended in March 2004, adding the clause ‘the state respects and protects human rights’. In June 2004, following a high profile incident in which a migrant worker and university graduate from Hubei Province without ‘proper registration’ with local police was beaten to death by policemen while in custody in Guangzhou, the Hu-Wen leadership, on the base of defending the human rights promised in the state constitution, gave orders abolishing the ‘Regulations for Detaining and Repatriating Vagrants and Beggars in Urban Areas’, which was issued by the State Council in 1982, authorizing policemen to abuse migrants from other provinces. The ‘people friendly’ programs pursued by the Hu-Wen leadership include a social safety net for the unemployed, economic policies to reduce regional inequalities, fiscal policies to abolish agriculture tax for peasants and exemption of tuition fees for primary schools in rural China.

Unfortunately, fundamental differences have not been overcome between democrats within the CCP and the Party leadership, and the consensus on democratization remains completely at sea. Hu Jintao did manage to put democratization back on the agenda of the Party, listing ‘democracy and the rule of law’ at the top of the six criteria of ‘harmonious society’. But the Hu-Wen leadership is not quite prepared to embrace liberal democracy, as it indicated in the white paper Construction of Democratic Politics in China, issued by the Information Office of the State Council, the first white paper on the subject in the history of the PRC. In the first sentence, the white paper shares with democrats the universal value of democracy, pointing out that ‘democracy is the achievement of political civilization by humankind and is a demand by all peoples in the whole world’. However, when it comes to the concrete form of democracy, the white paper simply recycles Party jargon such as ‘democracy in China is a democracy under the leadership of the CCP’, ‘democracy in China is democracy protected by the people’s democratic dictatorship’, and ‘democracy in China is a democracy based on the organizational principle of democratic centralism’. Even in Wen Jiabao’s recent bold article, he still maintained the concept of ‘socialist democracy’, which implies one-party dictatorship of the CCP.

In practice, technical progress in improving ‘democratic governance’ has been overshadowed by the political inertia of the one-party dictatorship. Improvements in ‘democratic governance’ under the Hu-Wen leadership include the growing role of the people’s congress as a legislative body, experiments with multi-candidate elections at the grass-root level, competition for selected Party and government positions up to the deputy departmental level, and enforcement of the law of administrative permit and other laws and regulations to make leading officials more accountable and protect individuals and enterprises from the abuses of government. However, Hu-Wen’s leadership has proved to be a big disappointment in its political practice if not in its political vision as well. The Party, under the leadership of Hu-Wen, has still ruled out democratic reform as an option. Having been locked into the totalitarian mentality to maintain complete control over anything political or potentially political, it seeks to augment rather than ease the tools of repression, presiding over a steady crackdown on dissent, Internet commentary, and the news media. Currently China imprisons far more journalists then any other country in the world, and is ranked 163rd out of 168 countries on Reporters Without Borders’s annual global press freedom index, only better than North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Cuba and Burma.


Since the late 1980s, the only major remaining communist country, China, has defied a wave of democratization that swept through the former communist world and some of China’s Asian neighbors, and maintained a phenomenal annual economic growth rate of about 10%. It is understandable that such a ‘miracle’ would prompt many to argue the case of China’s particularity. So far, communist dictators in China have effectively diluted pressure for democratization through abandoning inefficient state economy, minimizing fatal political infighting, channeling attention and energy of the population to wealth acquisition and private indulgence, siding with the winners of economic development at home and abroad, and marginalizing democratic activists.

By putting badly needed democratization on hold, however, China today is displaying many typical ‘post-totalitarian symptoms’, such as decline of the party-state without the development of civil society, the expansion of personal freedoms without political democratization, marginalization of both orthodox Leninists and liberal dissidents at the same time, deterioration of the ruling party’s strength alongside steady growth of its membership. And the country is characterized by what can be called ‘post-totalitarian tensions’ between communist rhetoric and capitalist reality, maintenance of the party-state and emergence of civil society, monopoly on power and free market competition, harsh crackdowns on corruption and abundant supply of opportunities for corruption, extra-legal power of the Party and growing pace of institutionalization, strict control of information and growing openness of media and society, supremacy of the state ideology and intellectual pluralism, and dependence on globalization for economic growth and reliance on nationalism for political legitimacy.

These structural tensions and comprehensive crises could lead either to regime collapse or a democratic breakthrough. Convinced of an interdependence between economic and political developments, China scholars seem to have reached a consensus that China will democratize in the long run, either through an evolution entailed by sustained economic growth, openness to the outside world and the accompanying social change, or through an eruptive change when an unexpected economic breakdown takes away the remaining legitimacy of the current regime, resting as it does mainly on economic performance. But there are others who put politics or political players at the center. Noting that the minimum economic, social and cultural conditions for democracy have long matured in China, Edward Friedman rightly maintains that democratic breakthrough is contingent on the choice of the political leadership. While the leaders of the Chinese opposition movement now in exile have been effectively isolated by the CCP and become increasingly irrelevant to politics in China, democrats within the CCP may hold the key to the project of democratization there. Anyway, the processes of the transformation evident in other former communist countries have shown that the most important actors were those ‘inside the system’ rather than those ‘outside the system’. In the former USSR in particular, the party-state was overthrown by the elites of the party-state themselves.

There is a suppressed tradition of liberal democracy within the CCP. The establishment of the CCP in 1921 resulted from the transformation of several pre-eminent thinkers from liberals to communists, most notably Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao. Likewise, the rise of the CCP to power in 1949 benefited greatly from the shift of thousands of educated youths from support of liberalism to communism in the late 1930s and 1940s. This category of Chinese communists embraced communism with a belief that democracy was not only compatible with socialism but an essential part of socialism. Many of them, including Chen Duxiu who served the first five terms of the CCP general secretary, never gave up their democratic ideal and eventually took the road back to their former position of democrats after awakening to the fraud of the so-called ‘new democracy’, ‘proletarian democracy’ or ‘socialist democracy’. In the 1940s Chen Duxiu completed his journey of reversion to the love of democracy before his death; during the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956-1957 many communists joined non-communist liberals in criticizing communist despotism; since the 1980s we have seen a reverse ideological transformation from communism backward toward liberalism in a large scale, as exemplified by the cases of Li Shenzhi and many of his colleagues. It is not unreasonable to expect that this trend will continue to gather momentum, and that more and more CCP members will transform themselves into democrats who will continue to push for democratic change from within the party-state until the successful establishment of liberal democracy in China.