Chinese Democracy

It is easy to resign oneself to the idea that 'Chinese democracy' is an oxymoron. Yet the potential implications of democratisation in China are so huge that the possiblity of it happening is worth imagining. Lu Xiaobo allows us to do so, if only for a few hours.

This article first appeared in El Pais (Spanish)

Oxymoron: “the combination, in the same syntactical structure, of two words or expression of opposite meaning.” Our political language is full of oxymorons: “smart bombs,” “preventive war,” “limited sovereignty,” “zero tolerance,” etc. Is “Chinese democracy” one of these?

Instinctively, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the Chinese government’s rhetoric and answer in the affirmative. But the implicit possibilities in the prospect of a democratic China are so vast that they are worth a second thought. The world would clearly be a different place, if the Chinese regime were to be democratised. In itself, independently of its international consequences, the liberation of 1.3 billion people would be a moral earthquake. But the democratisation of China would also radically modify the configuration of politics, power and international relations in the 21st century.

Just now all the scenarios about the future take it for granted that the rise of China will go with the continuance of its regime. This means we are counting on a future characterised by growing economic and political rivalry between a sinking West and a rising China. From raw materials to values, this century seems headed for a new global competition of uncertain consequences. But it seems worthwhile to imagine a scenario in which the democratisation of China is not necessarily impossible.

For those who consider this argument excessively abstract, the disproportionate reaction of Chinese diplomacy to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize suggests that there are weak joints in the iron corset that the Chinese Communist Party has imposed on 1.3 billion people. So afraid is the regime of the concept of democracy that it does not really know what to do with it. At times it tries to co-opt the term and adapt it to the local context, the better to profit from the legitimacy it brings; at other times it rejects it as a foreign imposition incompatible with local conditions.

With this, Communist ideas about the primacy of economic and social rights over political ones clash with the more modern idea of limited democracy within the party as a way to ensure social peace. The result is a grab-bag of arguments that mixes economic results (200 million fewer people under the statistical poverty line), Confucian values of harmony and respect for authority (which justify a deliberative, but not elective democracy), the sheer size of China in area and population (too big), and territorial tensions (Tibet, the Uighurs).

But in uttering all these arguments against democracy, China still looks like the diner who, peeved at the poor quality of the food, complains that the portions are too small. Once that diner has calmed down, the waiter can point out that at the next table sits India, which, with a similar population (1.15 billion), is not only the world’s largest democracy but infinitely more in ethnically and culturally diverse with no notable problems of instability.

True, India is not completely peaceful, but this is because democracies only try to manage conflicts, not stamp them out. If there is a democracy that, according to political science, ought to be on the oxymoron list, it is India; but it isn’t.

It is easy to understand why the Nobel Prize has made the Chinese authorities so nervous. Today the world’s second most powerful country is characterised (in Lu Xiaobo’s words) by “endemic official corruption, a weakening of the rule of law and of human rights, a collapse of public ethics, capitalism built of favouritism, growing inequalities, and the pillages of natural resources and human and historical heritages.”

But thanks to the Nobel winner (this is his virtue), we can now imagine the impossible as possible, or even likely — even if only for a few hours.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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