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Round One: Opening Remarks

Orville Schell
Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of nine books about China, including Virtual Tibet (2000), Mandate of Heaven (1994), and Discos and Democracy (1988).

The paradox of prognosticating about the prospects of China's becoming a more democratic society in the 21st century is that scenarios both roseate and pessimistic -- of peaceful and stable development and of social and political breakdown -- have a logic that is at least credible. Over the past two decades, China has been a paradigm of both reform and reaction. The most lively area of reform has, of course, been the economic front. By comparison, political reform has languished.

As Hu Shi noted in the 1920s, The only way to practice democracy, is to practice democracy. However, to do this, a society needs an open commitment to the principles of democracy.

It is true that Chinese leaders have been experimenting with village-level elections, have been granting greater latitude to civil society and NGOs, and are far less restrictive than 25 years ago when it comes to regulating private life. But, at the top of the political pyramid, changes have come much slower than at the bottom. Indeed, China still retains the same overall political structure that it borrowed from the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Herein lies China's dilemma: it has a Leninist structure, a lapsed Maoist ideology, and no clear antidote for either. It is all well and good for leaders to mozhe shitou guohe, or "to cross the river by feeling one's way over the stones," as Deng Xiaoping once famously declared. It is quite another thing, however, to clarify a new sense of political purpose, and describe a new political destination, if you will, and then seek to build a consensus for it.

Simply put, if China decides it does want to begin reforming its political structure in meaningful ways, then its leaders must not only allow but encourage educated Chinese and the media to have an open national discussion to formulate a political alternative to the status quo. But China's leadership has assiduously avoided such public discussion, which has left China's political future wreathed in uncertainty.

Unless such a discussion deals with the question of what should replace the present system -- never mind what should become of Maoist dogma, the Party, and the vast apparat that manages the public security, state security, the youth leagues, and the re-education through labor establishments -- the process of how China loses its spots will remain murky.

Such fundamental unanswered -- indeed, unasked -- questions underlie all considerations of how China will become more democratic, much less how it might someday be able institutionally to embrace human rights in anything more than an epi-phenomenal way.

Now, there are those who subscribe to the notion that China will be best served by being allowed just to "muddle along." Indeed, "muddling along" has not served China too badly so far. But it is counter-intuitive, to say the least, to imagine that it can successfully continue to do so ad infinitum. Such a strategy may suffice in the economic realm, where the challenge is, for now, simply to create greater wealth. On the economic side of the ledger, one may "get by" making the national mantra simply "more."

But it is important to recognize that the goals of economic reform, as relatively simple as they are, are infinitely more clearly spelled out than those of political reform. On the political side, "more" will not suffice. What does one mean by "more"? More authoritarianism, more Party control, and more nationalism? Or more rights, more free press, and more democracy?

When it comes to political reform, we do not yet know how to quantify progress, except in quotients of stability, which could lead either toward more or less control.

Of the two scenarios alluded to at the outset, the scenario of "peaceful evolution" is clearly the most hopeful. Proponents of this view tend to cite the cases of Taiwan and Korea, which did, in effect, evolve in this manner. Nobody would wish breakdown on China. And while it is possible that China might continue to develop piecemeal, with the Communist Party slowly losing significance as other more democratic political parties gather momentum (in an inverse form of Marx's vaunted prediction that the dialectics of materialism would ultimately lead toward the withering of the state), this is far from a foregone conclusion.

Several things make one wary about accepting such a prediction. As the famed Chinese political philosopher Hu Shi noted in the 1920s, "The only way to practice democracy, is to practice democracy." However, to do this, a society needs an open commitment to the principles of democracy. Without such a commitment, which involves some rudimentary declaration of intent, the organs of government easily end up working at cross purposes with the desired goal, especially when those mandated to do the managing have been reared on Leninsim.

The debate led by our Founding Fathers, which preceded and followed the American Revolution, helped establish what became a kind of true north that has been instrumental in synchronizing all political compasses since. Is it too far fetched to imagine, much less hope for, a similar discussion in China? For those who doubt that it is, a look at the discussions and debates of the May 4th movement in the 1920s are a reminder that the basic DNA for such a conversation are not inherently unnatural to China and Chinese culture.

At the heart of the dilemma of contemporary China is this final question: Is it possible to become a democratic society without any declaration that democracy is the desired goal of government?

•   •   •

Anne Thurston
Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and author of The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994), A Chinese Odyssey (1991), and most recently, Muddling Toward Democracy: Political Change in Grassroots China (1998).

Ask ordinary Chinese people what troubles them today and many will say that their country is tai luan -- too chaotic. Chinese still debate whether democracy would promote or hinder stability.

Fourteen years after the army moved violently against the Beijing protesters on June 3-4, 1989, China's democracy movement remains quiet. The easiest explanation for the failure of democratization in China is the intransigence of the Communist Party and the price it exacts for dissent, but other factors are also at work. Since 1992, when Deng Xiaoping called for all of China to emulate the free-wheeling, Hong Kong-inspired model of Shenzhen, the Chinese government has made an implicit pact with the Chinese people: Seek your fortunes, yes, try to get rich quick, but leave politics alone. For many, that contract has worked remarkably well. Some 200-250 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty since economic reforms began.

At the same time, both the Chinese government and many Chinese people have come to fear the luan, or chaos, of rapid socio-economic change. Ask ordinary Chinese people what troubles them today and many will say that their country is tai luan -- too chaotic. They point to the potential for disruption as large numbers of urban workers are laid off when state-owned enterprises go bankrupt. They fear that the massive exodus from rural to urban areas -- some 120 million people in the past two decades -- will lead to chaos in China's cities. They worry that anger over continuing widespread corruption could lead to protests. They are concerned about growing inequality as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Unfortunately, democracy has also been linked to chaos in many Chinese minds. The country's series of failed attempts to democratize have all ended in violence. Today, Chinese still debate whether democracy would promote or hinder stability. Some fear that opening the lid of grassroots demands could overwhelm the capacity of the government to respond, thus plunging the country into chaos. They argue that China must complete this very difficult economic transition before democracy could work.

While the immediate prospects for democratization in China look bleak, there are reasons to be more optimistic in the long term. First, while few are overtly calling for democratic reform today, many people (including government officials) believe that democracy is both necessary and inevitable. The question is not whether, but when and how.

Second, theories of democratic evolution suggest a correlation between economic and political development. As Henry Rowan argues, "The transition to stable democracy correlates with mean incomes between $5,000 and $6,000 and becomes impregnable at the $7,000 level." Average incomes in Chinese cities currently hover just above $700 a year, one-tenth the level at which Rowan argues democracy begins to thrive. Continued economic development thus becomes vital to the democratization of China.

Third, many believe that the development of a healthy civil society is also a prerequisite to democratization. China is moving, however slowly, in the right direction. Chinese are both freer to express themselves and have access to far more information today than a decade ago. The Chinese press publishes a much broader array of opinion and critique. Both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) are proliferating like the proverbial bamboo shoots after a spring rain. Their missions range from improving the environment, alleviating poverty, providing education to poor rural children, addressing the needs of migrant workers and giving legal advice to the poor to promoting women's health.

Finally, limited political reforms are taking place, particularly in rural areas. Since 1987, the Chinese government has been experimenting with the introduction of democratic elections at the village level. In 1998, the National People's Congress mandated that all village chiefs and village committees be democratically elected. The number of candidates must outnumber the positions available; candidates must be selected by the villagers themselves: and voting must take place in secret. All of China's villages have now participated in at least one round of elections. At their best, village elections are recognizably democratic by any international standard. Quiet experiments to begin democratization in urban areas and at higher levels of the political hierarchy have begun.

If there is cause for optimism about the long-term possibilities for democratization in China, the short-term possibilities are bleak. The possibility of significant social unrest during this economic transition is real, as is the popular fear of luan. Even closet democrats are reluctant to rock the boat. Similarly, the development of a democratic political culture has a long way to go. Finally, of course, the Communist Party is very reluctant to cede power. The peaceful evolution of democracy in China will ultimately require acquiescence from the top.

•   •   •

Senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specializing in China's domestic politics and the author of From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (1994).

I am not predicting that China will collapse.  The more likely scenario is the eruption of a profound economic and political crisis that will forge a coalition for political reform.

I am pessimistic about the prospects for democratic reform in China in the near future, but I remain hopeful about the long term. While not totally giving up on the idea that Chinese leaders may restart a long-delayed process of political opening, I see enormous short-term obstacles to such a process. To start with, there does not appear to be a consensus at the very top of the Chinese government that democratic reforms -- by which I mean introducing competitive elections, allowing some form of political opposition, making the rule of law really meaningful, and protecting essential civil liberties such as free speech and rights of association -- are needed at this point. The political strategy that has guided government policy for the past decade is for strong economic performance to sustain regime legitimacy. Therefore, as long as strong economic performance continues, there is unlikely to be much internally generated pressure on the regime to initiate democratic reforms that could potentially threaten its rule.

But one must balance such pessimism with a more optimistic assessment of improving social and economic structures and conditions in China. Although the Communist Party has not demonstrated any desire to curb or share its power, China's fast-changing economy and society make it increasingly difficult to maintain a one-party regime indefinitely. Economically, as the state continues to lose its dominance, the Communist Party's ability to use the economy as an instrument of social and political control will keep declining. This has already become very clear in the countryside, where the disappearance of collective agriculture has gravely weakened the Party's political control. This trend is also emerging in urban areas, as private firms (including foreign-owned companies) are displacing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as the main engines of job-growth.

Thus, the rising strength of the private sector, a more independent and wealthy middle-class, and increasing rights awareness will help create constituencies for democratic reforms. Even without top-down reforms, societal initiatives to advance the rule of law, protect individual rights, and improve social services are likely to bubble up. This is where China's hope lies. Indeed, if one looks at where the most interesting changes are taking place and who are pushing them, one may find that these changes are occurring at the bottom of Chinese society and that independent social activists are behind those initiatives. Their efforts are making a difference in the areas of labor rights, environmental protection, and legal reform. Of course, at some point, a rigid closed political system will inevitably clash with an increasingly open, pluralist, and assertive civil society. At the moment, China may be some distance away from this point, but we can be sure that it will not be able to skirt that point. This may explain why I am cautiously pessimistic in the short term but hopeful for the long run.

Another reason to be hopeful for the future is that, ironically, crisis will force change. I am not predicting that China will collapse. Rather, the more likely scenario is the eruption of a profound economic and political crisis that will forge a coalition for political reform. The greatest threat to the rule of the Communist Party is not a popular uprising. Social discontent will continue to brew, but its manifestation will remain small-scale and geographically dispersed. The real threat to the Party is corruption. Because the Party controls the apparatus of the state, a corrupt ruling party will cause the degeneration of the state. When corruption reaches a certain level, the probability of a crisis will also increase, especially in the financial realm where the loss of confidence can be deadly. The effects of this crisis may, in the extreme, lead to a total collapse of the system. But given China's size and relative ethnic homogeneity (about 90 percent of the people are of the same ethnicity), an economic crisis alone may not trigger a quick regime collapse. More likely, it could initiate a process of internal struggle within the Party that may lead to a fundamental adjustment in policy. That may create a democratic opening.

Of course, the risks and costs of a crisis-induced change are often very high. The success of such forced reforms is never assured. But in several countries, that appears to the model of regime transition. Thailand and South Korea fit this model. Both countries experienced sustained long-term growth. Eventually, a political crisis awakened civil society and forced the regime to open. This mixed "evolutionary-revolutionary" model may also fit China's future 10 to 15 years from now.

•   •   •

Suzanne Ogden
Professor at Northeastern University specializing in Chinese politics and a research associate at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, she is the author most recently of Inklings of Democracy in China (2002).

Although China's political system may never resemble that of a Western European liberal democratic regime, China appears to be working hard at becoming a fairer, more just society.

Democratization is more than an isolated political process -- and it may have less to do with conscious choices than with socioeconomic forces. Thus, whether the Chinese people (or their leaders) are inclined toward democracy or not, the power of socioeconomic forces -- such as the free market, economic development, urbanization, and commercialization -- appear to be moving China toward becoming a more pluralistic society, a society with many more individual rights for its people, and even a polity with enhanced democratic processes, such as local level elections and a more just legal system. "Peaceful evolution" toward "associational pluralism," if not liberal democracy, is occurring in China, both with and without the support of the state.

Yet socioeconomic forces have also had negative effects, especially for a significant percentage of China's peasants and workers -- the very people for whom the Communist revolution was fought in 1949. Unemployment, the loss of a social safety net, the polarization of wealth -- these are a high price to pay for promoting market-oriented reforms and opening up China to the world, and they may undercut further efforts at democratization.

China's political culture is being forced not to embrace but to accommodate democratic ideas and institutions. At the same time, that culture is also shaping the form democratization takes. As a result, the China of today is a society riddled with the tensions generated by the democratizing power of socioeconomic forces in the context of an authoritarian culture. We have only to look at, say, Singapore, Taiwan, or Japan to see that polities can and do live with such tensions.

Nevertheless, many of the practices of the Chinese Communist Party are rooted in culture and will not necessarily disappear if the Party loses power. Indeed, it is not the withering away of Communism but rather cultural changes -- and institutional, social, and economic modernization -- that will more deeply challenge China's undemocratic practices and policies. This is a good reason for thinking about China in as non-ideological a manner as possible.

As a (modified) utilitarian -- one who measures results according to the greatest good for the greatest number of people -- I focus less on the derogation of the rights of political dissidents than on the greater freedom in daily life for almost all Chinese; the lively debates within intellectual circles; the vibrancy of the mass media; the increasing autonomy of interest groups and associations; the acceptance of pluralistic perspectives in academic, government, and even Party institutions; a more assertive national legislature and a growing number of truly democratic elections for leaders in China's villages; and the development of a more equitable legal system.

It may be misleading to conclude that individual Chinese feel oppressed based on how we might feel under similar levels of governmental control. At this point in history, it is important to tread lightly between the extremes of viewing all criticism of the party-state as a sign of a desire to overthrow Communist Party rule, or of viewing the lack of serious criticism or the lack of demands for democracy as either a sign of satisfaction (even an indicator of a "nation of sheep") or of fear of the consequences of disagreeing.

The Chinese party-state rejects Western standards for democratization, yet it has taken some of these standards seriously and has changed policies in order to move closer to them. This is especially true in the area of legal reform. China is moving at a fair pace along the continuum from a "totalitarian" to a "democratizing" regime, albeit one heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Although China's political system may never resemble that of a Western European liberal democratic regime, China appears to be working hard at becoming a fairer, more just society.

China's leaders have become almost obsessively cautious about political reform, for good reason. They know what has failed in the past -- rapid change and inadequate experimentation. Moreover, the leadership remains divided over the precise goals of reform, and a cautious approach makes it easier for the pro-reform group to pull the conservative, reform-resistant group within the leadership into a consensus. An acute awareness of the political disintegration that occurred in the Soviet Union with the collapse of Communism, and remembrances of things past like the haste of the Great Leap Forward, have further convinced China's leaders of the correctness of their policy of controlling political change.

In spite of its cautious approach, China's government appears to be losing control over -- that is, the ability to govern -- the population. Just how much state control is good for the development of China's public sphere and the proper balance between autonomy and control are issues that the Chinese government must address. A developing China armed with a more comprehensive legal system, strong economic development, peace, and prosperity may be better able to contend with the challenges to stability and order that accompany economic liberalization and democratization. To the degree that the political and social system can tolerate the dramatic challenge to its structure of control, the changes in the relationship between society and the state will benefit the Chinese people and advance democracy.

Yet no factors can guarantee democratization. Even the growth of fully autonomous associations and institutions, and the development of broader political rights, may turn out to be far less important to China's democratic development than whether the Chinese state can maintain stability while undergoing relentless and rapid economic and social change. Although some observers assert that China is moving too slowly toward democracy, it could easily be argued that the pace is actually too fast, and hence too destabilizing, for the long-run health of a democratizing authoritarian society.

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