Democracy in China

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

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[edit]

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 constitutional monarchy with democracy. The goal of the Hundred Days' Reform was to reform China into such as system, but it was rapidly reversed in the Wuxu Coup.

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–present[edit]

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.

Taiwan, 1945–present[edit]

In 1945, after the Surrender of Japan, governance of Taiwan was transferred to the Republic of China. The ceding of Taiwan was formalized under the Treaty of Taipei in 1952.

After its retreat from China to the island of Taiwan in 1949, martial law was imposed following the Kuomintang-led 228 Massacre. Since the lifting of martial law in 1987, the ROC has had two major political parties, the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party. Since then, smaller parties have split from the two main parties, as others formed as new groups. The two parties have since formed their respective coalition groups: The pan-Blue coalition consists of the Kuomintang, the People First Party (PFP), New Party (CNP), and Minkuotang (MKT). The pan-Blue parties traditionally favor Chinese unification, with some moving towards a position supporting the present status quo with eventual unification with China. Some pan-Blue politicians argue that unification is possible only after the communist regime in China collapses and/or transitions to a democracy either as a new democratic government or with the re-establishment of Sun Yat-sen's Kuomintang government which fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. The New Party supports "voluntary peaceful unification" and is dominated by Taiwanese gangster "White Wolf" (Chang An-lo). It has been implicated in several protests and disturbances that have led to violence in Taipei. The other side is dominated by the pan-Green coalition, which combines the Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), Taiwan Independence Party (TAIP), and Taiwan Constitution Association (TCA). The Democratic Progressive Party was formed in opposition to the Kuomintang from the members of the pro-democracy Tangwai movement under martial law and traditionally favors Taiwanese independence. Some parties advocate for immediate independence, with some support for the creation of a Republic of Taiwan, and others supporting the status quo of de facto Republic of China statehood - which is the official position of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party - but moving towards eventual de jure statehood. The recently-formed New Power Party, conceived independently of the Democratic Progressive Party by participants in and supporters of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, also cooperates with the pan-Green coalition. The New Power Party favors Taiwanization and the Taiwan independence movement over unification. The New Power Party also has close ties to smaller left-of-center parties compromising the Third Force including the Green Party, the Tree Party and the Social Democratic Party. Some members in both coalitions have moderated their policies to reach voters in the center.

People's Republic of China, 1949–present[edit]

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 and opposition parties are outlawed.

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, 1997–present[edit]

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. Official memos from Chinese Commnunist Party leaders, threatening the British government if they were to hold elections in Hong Kong, were repeatedly sent from the 1950s onwards.[3][4] 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 14 of Macao's 33. Also, like grassroots elections in China, Hong Kong does hold elections for the district counsel, which act as consultants to the government.

Hong Kong[edit]

The first Chief Executive election saw the Chief Executive elected by a 400-member Selection Committee in 1996, then by 800-member Election Committee in 2002, 2005, 2007 and then 1200-member Election Committee in 2012 and 2017.

The Legislative Council of Hong Kong from 1997-2004 had 60 seats with 24 were directly elected, six elected from an 800-member electoral college known as the Election Committee of Hong Kong, and 30 elected from FCs. Elections in 2004 and 2008, had 30 members were directly elected by universal suffrage from geographical constituencies (GCs) and 30 were elected from functional constituencies (FCs). From 2012 onwards, The Legislative Council consists of 70 elected members, 35 members were directly elected by universal suffrage from geographical constituencies and 35 were elected from functional constituencies.

There have been many attempts with many different ideas to introduce universal suffrage since the handover.

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 with the majority of its members having political/economical links to the Communist Party of China.[5]


The first Macao Legislative Council in 1996 had 23 members: eight of whom were directly elected (GC), eight indirectly (FC), and seven nominated by the Chief Executive. Its second Legislative Council (2001) had four more members: two more directly elected and two more indirectly. Its third and fourth (2005&2009) legislative councils had 29 members, and the fifth (2013) and sixth (2017) have 33. [6]

The first Chief Executve of Macau was elected by the 200-member Chief Executive Selection Committee in 1999, 2004 and 2009 saw the Chief Executive elected by 300-member Election Committee, and 400-member Election Committee in 2014.


Further reading[edit]

  • Nathan, Andrew (1985). Chinese Democracy. New York, USA: Knopf. ISBN 0-394-51386-X. 
  • 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
  • Hu, Shaohua. Explaining Chinese Democratization (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000).
  • Liu Jianfei (刘建飞), Democracy and China (Beijing: New World Press, 2011). 178 p. ISBN:9787510412240
  • Holbig, Heike, und Günter Schucher (2016), "He who says C must say D" — China’s Attempt to Become the "World’s Largest Democracy", GIGA Focus Asia, 02, June, 2016