The protests in Hong Kong have reignited the debate about democracy in China. In Foreign Affairs, the Hong Kong-based professor of philosophy Jiwei Ci, for example, argues that China cannot reach its next stage of development without democracy. What’s more, in his most recent public visit to Shanghai, president Xi Jinping called for efforts to explore new forms of democracy in the city. To be sure, it is highly unlikely that China will implement major democratic reforms in the coming years. However, it is important to wonder how the Chinese political system could gradually become more open and transparent – like all countries that reached high-income status (except petro-states).
What does this mean?
The topic of democracy in China is of course nothing new. Up until a few years ago, the belief that all countries would eventually become democratic was still dominant. More recently, the idea that democracy is merely a western concept, and other cultures have their own distinct political systems, has taken root. However, both perspectives disregard the possibility that all countries will experience a unique path towards a more open, liberal and transparent political system. Indeed, there are fundamental (institutional) differences between the democracies of the U.S., Europe and India. That being the case, a Chinese version of “democracy” is likely to come to fruition, but it will be shaped by Chinese traditions.
If Chinese politics become more open and transparent, it is likely to retain its highly centralized bureaucracy whose authority cannot be questioned directly (as to prevent the possibility of a weak unstable center of government). Instead, Beijing would increasingly encourage democracy at the local level. The well-known 2011 protests in the southern Chinese village of Wukan display the roots of this Chinese political spirit: protestors were frustrated with corrupt local officials, but carried flags in support of the Communist Party based on the belief that the party would intervene. Indeed, Xi’s visit to Shanghai highlights the Chinese path to political liberalization: Beijing will carry the responsibility to make local administrators listen to the demands of the people, possibly by holding elections.