Whither China’s Democracy? Democratization in China since the Tiananmen Incident

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This weighty monograph offers a thoughtful assessment of one of globally raising China’s most profound political issues—democratization since the 1989 Tiananmen Incident.

Not exactly a “looking back” retrospective nor a typical commemorative work, this book harbors a more forward prospecting approach with 13 substantive chapters yielding informed analysis and insightful interpretations of various key issues. The core subjects range from legal foundation of Chinese democracy, middle-class politics, Internet based-democratization debates and pro-democratic mobilizations, civic society activism, to the external and international media’s inputs, democracy and China’s ethnic minorities; and PRC-Vatican interface.

This timely volume will be of considerable interest to scholars, journalists, and those keen to learn about contemporary China’s ideo-political transformation.

Pub. Date
Jan 1, 2011
452 pages
165 x 229 mm

Why does a team of academics consider a book to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident a worthwhile project? The Chinese authorities, for all these years, have clearly indicated that they will not entertain any suggestion of a “re

Why does a team of academics consider a book to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident a worthwhile project? The Chinese authorities, for all these years, have clearly indicated that they will not entertain any suggestion of a “reversal of the verdict” on the incident. The official position is that a conclusion has already been made. Most China experts believe that since the Tiananmen Incident involved so many top leaders, some of whom are still in power today, any attempt to arrive at an open verdict on the historic event would be politically destabilizing. Advocates of the Beijing united front overseas, on the other hand, have been preaching a “xiang qian kan (look ahead)” line, arguing that it is futile and unconstructive to turn back to a controversial tragedy; the best approach is to look ahead and concentrate on the achievements of China and its challenges in the future.
There is a distinct danger, given the fact that discussion of the Tiananmen Incident has been a taboo in China, that many young people, those who are under about thirty years of age, know very little about the event. This is probably what the Chinese leaders want. To face history requires courage, especially when the regime is so concerned about its image and legitimacy. But to avoid facing history suggests a lack of courage and a sense of insecurity; the handling of Zhao Ziyang’s funeral was a vivid example. In view of China’s impressive economic growth and the absence of any formidable force ready to challenge the Chinese Communist regime, the sense of insecurity is difficult to understand. Stability can best be maintained when contradictions are resolved rather than covered up.
Confucian values are now exploited by the Chinese leaders to fill the ideological vacuum and to combat moral decay, symbolized by Hu Jintao’s promotion of the “eight honors and eight shames.” Confucian values are premised on “chengyi (sincerity)” on the part of the individual, the litmus test of the integrity of intellectuals. In the major political tragedies in the history of the People’s Republic of China, like the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the heroes and those who could stand the test of history were those who spoke the truth. Academics have the duty to speak the truth; looking ahead must be based on a sincere understanding of the past.
At the beginning of the era of economic reforms and opening to the outside world, Deng Xiaoping and his supporters emphasized “the liberation of thought,” which in turn had to be based on “seeking truth from facts.” Sino-Japanese relations have been a core issue in the emergence of nationalism in China in recent decades, and the Chinese leadership has been appealing to their counterparts in Japan “to use history as a mirror.” Chinese people cannot accept the attempts of the right-wing circles in Japan to whitewash its history of aggression against China; but this means that Chinese leaders certainly should not apply different standards domestically and internationally.
Concern over an objective appraisal of the Tiananmen Incident is closely related to the issue of political reforms. Agreement on the part of the Chinese leadership to discuss and evaluate the historic event would be considered the most significant demonstration of its determination to engage in political reforms. The goals of political reforms are clearly freedoms, human rights, the rule of law and democracy. They are the legitimate objectives of modernization and development; naturally they should be the objectives if the people are truly considered the foundation (yi ren wei ben), as preached by the present Chinese leadership.
The Chinese people and the international community all embrace the peaceful rise of China. But what is the meaning of peaceful rise when people cannot enjoy their fundamental political rights? Chinese leaders argue that, for developing countries, survival and development are the most important rights. However, when Beijing seeks the status of a major power, survival is no longer the top priority and development should mean more than survival. Development at this stage should include political reforms leading to freedoms, human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Apparently Chinese leaders today understand that a democratic China would be much more reassuring to the international community than the slogan of peaceful rise; hence during their visits to Western countries, they also talk about democracy and universal values.
China’s strength may well be seen as a threat, but China’s potential weaknesses also cause worries among China’s neighbors and may adversely affect their perceptions of and relations with China. If China’s economic collapse were to lead to an exodus of refugees, China’s neighbors would feel threatened. If China’s lack of political reforms, along with government incompetence and corruption, finally lead to political and social instability, peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region will be damaged. China’s environmental pollution spreads to its neighbors. Its inefficient use of natural resources, resulting from rapid economic growth, adds a lot of pressure to international commodity markets and the balances in demand and supply regarding raw materials. Hence domestic reforms constitute an important part of China’s responsible behavior, reassuring the international community that China’s development should not be perceived as a threat.
Concern over China’s political and social stability is related to the human rights condition, political reforms and corruption in China, core issues in the Tiananmen Incident twenty years ago. Chinese leaders are obviously determined to combat corruption; there has been improvement in the human rights condition in the country, but the Party has no intention of compromising its monopoly of political power. The fact that China is not a democracy and makes little effort at democratization remains a handicap in China’s foreign relations. It was suggested that the neo-conservatives in the American political establishment favored closer ties with Russia than with China because they considered Russia a democracy. Similarly they now prefer the cultivation of India to balance against China for the same reason. China’s “soft power” would be much enhanced by its successful political reforms.
  • Whither China’s Democracy? In Commemoration of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident
    Joseph Y. S. CHENG
  • Intra-Party Democracy with Chinese Characteristics
    Willy LAM
  • Democratic Election of Heads of Local Government in Law and Practice—and Its Future
    LIN Feng
  • Civil Law Legislation and Democracy in China
    GU Minkang
  • New Middle Class Politics in China: The Making of a Quiet Democratization?
    Alvin Y. SO
  • Netizenship and Its Implications for Democratization in China
    Mobo GAO
  • Public Opinion on the Internet and Authoritarian Politics: The Chinese Authorities’ Control of the Internet
    Kinglun NGOK
Joseph Y. S. CHENG: Chair Professor of Political Science and Coordinator of the Contemporary China Research Project, City University of Hong Kong. He is the founding editor of the Hong Kong Journal of Social Sciences and The Journal of Comparative Asian Development. He has published widely on the political development in China and Hong Kong, Chinese foreign policy and local government in southern China. He has recently edited volumes on China: A New Stage of Development for An Emerging Superpower; and The Second Chief Executive of Hong Kong SAR: Evaluating the Tsang Years 2005–2012. He is now serving as convenor of the Alliance for True Democracy in Hong Kong.