Montreal, September 15, 2008 • No 259




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.




by Bradley Doucet

          China's recent spectacular economic growth has been a boon to hundreds of millions of its citizens—and to the rest of the world as well, thanks to globalization—but critics worry that the economic freedom upon which this growth has been predicated has not been matched by any comparable increase in political freedom. China is not a democracy. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not allow other political parties to exist and does not hold national elections. To make matters worse, political protesters are routinely jailed, courts have little independence, and the press, which Thomas Jefferson famously opined was more important than government itself, labours under the heavy hand of state censorship.


          Will the Chinese some day soon enjoy the kind of political freedom taken for granted in the Western world? Expert opinion is frankly divided, but what is certain (though little appreciated by the general public) is how much progress China has already made on this issue. It may not be as impressive as the opening up of its economy, but contrary to popular opinion, China is far more politically open than it was just a few decades ago.

Don't Be Evil

          Some people, when they think of China, picture an evil empire, violently suppressing the rights of its own people. From the Tibetan occupation to tensions across the Taiwan Straight to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the rulers in Beijing seem to have no qualms about flexing their muscles. The owners of Google are accused of violating their own motto, "Don't Be Evil," by allowing the Chinese government to place limits on what information Chinese citizens can access with their search engine.

          I was able to observe for myself the effects of decades of repression when I visited China in March 2007. On a night train from Shanghai to the spectacular Yellow Mountains, my friends and I were unable to sleep due to the oppressive heat from the heater in our sleeper. After some wrangling with an official, the heat was finally turned off, but it had to be turned off for the entire car. This made me wonder: wasn't every other person in our packed car also uncomfortably hot? Why did no one else complain? I was told by my friend, a Canadian citizen currently living in China, that people who have spent their entire lives in China tend to be very reluctant to complain about anything, for fear of attracting unwanted attention. Don't stick your neck out, they have learned—lest it be cut off.

          This legacy of repression and fear, however, is a holdover from the era of Mao. Despite continuing to hold fast to much of its power, the Chinese government has been opening up, and not just economically. In terms of holding elections, in terms of the rule of law, and in terms of oversight, the Chinese government has made important strides in moving toward liberal democracy.

Slowly but Surely

          If the average Chinese still has no say at the national level of government, this is no longer true at the local level. John L. Thornton, a Professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management and its School of Public Policy and Management, in Beijing, writes in the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs that "for more than a decade, peasants across the country have held ballots to elect village chiefs." While these village elections are not without their problems, Thornton writes, "Proponents nonetheless maintain that the polls serve as a grass-roots training ground for democratic habits." Townships, the next level up from villages, are also experimenting with elections to a lesser extent, as are some counties and urban areas. There has even recently been an effort, according to Thornton, to "expand competitive selection" within the CCP itself, a move which some experts believe "is even more significant for China's long-term political reform than the experiments in local governance."

          Strictly speaking, democracy simply means "rule by the people," typically through elected representatives. But if those representatives can just do whatever they want once elected, it hardly qualifies as a Western-style, modern, liberal democracy. Packaged into this narrower concept are such essential attributes as the rule of law and oversight, which place important limits on what the people can do to each other through their representatives. (For an exploration of the shortcomings of pure democracy, see this month's instalment of my ongoing Illiberal Beliefs series: "Democracy is a cure-all.")

"The government may be able to suppress stories about the Tiananmen Square massacre, but it simply cannot filter out all potentially subversive material. To take just one example, I had unrestricted access to Le Québécois Libre's website during my stay in China."

          As it happens, the Chinese government has made some noteworthy progress in these kinds of areas as well. With regards to the rule of law, Thornton informs us that "[t]he Chinese judicial system has made great strides over the past three decades," although it is still far from satisfactory. Judges and prosecutors, who until the mid-1980s were "former military personnel with little formal education of any sort," now actually have legal training, with a master's degree in law being "an unwritten prerequisite to becoming a senior judge." Several major laws have also been passed to protect citizens from abuse at the hands of the government. The problem now is "the chasm between what is on the books and its implementation, especially at the local level and in politically sensitive cases." More and more lawyers are willing to take on the judicial system itself, though, and pressure is mounting to make that system more independent from the CCP.

          With regards to oversight, Thornton has little good to say about official government institutions designed to fight corruption. Instead, he sees a positive trend in "the rapid commercialization of the Chinese press." Despite continuing government censorship, independent Chinese publications jockeying for readership and advertizing dollars are pushing the boundaries. In January 2007, the government also decided to "allow foreign journalists to travel and report freely throughout China (with the exception of Tibet)." In addition, the Internet, hobbled though it may be, is still a powerful force for positive change. The government may be able to suppress stories about the Tiananmen Square massacre, but it simply cannot filter out all potentially subversive material. To take just one example, I had unrestricted access to Le Québécois Libre's website during my stay in China.

          In addition to some moderate progress when it comes to elections, the rule of law, and oversight, Thornton gives several examples of ways in which the Chinese have significantly more personal freedom than they did just a few decades ago: controls on internal migration have been relaxed; urban residents are no longer assigned jobs and housing; once-segregated local Chinese now live side by side with foreigners; and applying for a passport has gone from an uncertain, multi-layered, months-long procedure to one that now takes less than a week, with approval "nearly as automatic as it is in the United States." This is not democracy, but it is liberty, and it is highly prized by those who are living through the changes.

First Things First

          But should we be surprised, or scandalized, that economic and personal liberty have preceded democracy? As Thornton writes, "Some Chinese like to point out that it took the United States almost two centuries to achieve universal suffrage." According to Fareed Zakaria, in his celebrated 2003 book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, liberty (which includes the rule of law, an independent judiciary, secure property rights, and freedom of the press) has historically preceded strict democracy in our modern, liberal societies. In fact, when it has been tried the other way around—when people got the vote before the institutions of liberty were well-established, as in much of post-colonial Africa—democracy has collapsed into military dictatorship in short order, with no chance of the kind of economic success and burgeoning personal freedom currently enjoyed by the Chinese.

          None of which is to imply that things are rosy in China. Indeed, according to an article in the August 2, 2008 issue of The Economist, the Beijing Olympic Games, which many hoped would spur China to open up more, have actually had the opposite effect. For one thing, even before the Tibetan demonstrations, "China was tightening the screws on dissent in order to keep the games protest-free." Amnesty International reported "numerous repressive measures adopted by China to ensure an orderly games: arresting dissidents, detaining people who try to present their local grievances to the central authorities in Beijing… [and] sending people to prison camps without trial." Many people were also forced to move to make room for the building of Olympic venues.

          Even so, as The Economist also reports, "many Chinese intellectuals would argue that over the past seven years since China was awarded the games their ability to speak out on sensitive topics has continued to grow." Furthermore, the Chinese media continue to debate the country's process of opening itself up to greater freedom. "No one is openly calling for multi-party politics, at least not in the press. But more media freedom, less government secrecy and greater efforts to consult the public are being commonly demanded." Clearly, the sooner the CCP can meet those demands, the better off the Chinese people will be—and the more prepared they will be to expand their still timid experiments with actual democracy. In wishing them a speedy journey to that goal, however, we should not neglect to acknowledge how far they have already come in a relatively short time.