Orville Schell displays considerable expertise on all things China. His is an authoritative voice on the Middle Kingdom, so we are naturally inclined to take his views seriously. With Xi Jinping preparing to arrive in the United States, we are drawn to consider Schell’s views.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal Schell argues that democracy will be coming to China. On the basis of rather flimsy evidence he declares China to have a long and rich democratic tradition.
In truth, Schell is blinded by his own idealism, to the point where he believes that a liberal democracy, government of and by and for the people, decided by the ballot box and respecting individual rights, is the only just form of government. It’s a variant on Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis that the Hegelian apotheosis is a liberal democratic capitalism. By Schell's thesis, China has gotten part of the way there, lacking only democracy.
One would be remiss if one did not note that if America wants to export democratic idealism it would do best to set a good example. For now, any foreign leader looking on the madness consuming America’s idealists would happily avoid democracy.
And, we ought to mention that America was established as a Republic, not a democracy. The United States Senate is not a democratic institution.
Everyone knows that, in the West, democracy and republican government hark back to ancient Greece and Rome. They did not arise in the twentieth century. Democratic practices have been developing in the west for centuries now. They include the Magna Carta, the British Common Law, parliamentary democracy and the Protestant Reformation.
And everyone knows, Schell first among us, that no such tradition exists in China. Chinese thought and political life has never known liberal democracy. The West, on the contrary, has known democracy from its cultural inception.
This does not deter Schell who trots out Sun Yat-sen, a twentieth century figure who tried to advance the cause of Chinese democracy after the end of the Qing dynasty.
Democratic ideals have deep roots in modern Chinese history and have surfaced again and again over the past century. This legacy should serve to remind us that not all Chinese, even in the worst of times, have been resigned to a politics of one-party rule.
The idea that China would develop into a constitutional republic was first and most forcefully proposed at the beginning of the previous century by Sun Yat-sen, the so-called father of modern China.
How did that work out? Glad you asked. Schell explains:
His presidency lasted just 41 days as the country slid into the control of regional warlords. But Sun persisted, going on to establish the Nationalist Party, whose role in promoting democratic ideals in China proved to be long and tortuous.
The warlord period counted among the worst and most brutal in Chinese history. If this was the outcome of the first experiment in Chinese democracy, one understands why people would hesitate to try it again.
Schell believed that the dream had stayed alive, ultimately to be realized in present-day, democratic Taiwan.
But Taiwan has been a vindication of the Nationalists’ hopes. A process of liberalization began there in earnest in the mid-1980s with the lifting of martial law and a new tolerance for protests and opposition parties. Today, in the face of a newly autocratic and aggressive China, Taiwan remains a sturdy democracy.
Perhaps Taiwan is going to be a laboratory for Chinese democracy. Yet, the nation is extremely vulnerable, and sorely in need of allies to fight off a China that wants to accession it. Practicing democracy might be part of a Taiwanese self-defense program-- not a realization of Sun Yat-sen’s dream.
Schell also trots the spasm of pro-democracy activism that manifested itself in China in 1989. Students occupied Tiananmen Square for weeks and their supporters practically brought the nation to a halt.
Naively and uncritically, Schell suggests that it was the realization of a democratic ideal, crushed by ruthless autocrats. It makes for a good story, even if it is not quite true.
Allow Schell to describe it:
This crescendo of free speech and democratic protest culminated, of course, in the massive demonstrations that paralyzed Beijing for seven weeks in the spring of 1989. I was there and watched in amazement as millions of Chinese from every walk of life marched into Tiananmen Square, under the gaze of a giant statue of the Goddess of Democracy, waving banners proclaiming such things as “I’d Rather Die Than Go Without Democracy.” How, everyone wondered, would Deng and the party ever regain control?
The answer, tragically, was bloody suppression. Deng had thought he could manage the wild current of democratic excitement that his reforms had catalyzed, but surrendering to a more open political system was, finally, out of the question for him and other hard-liners. Even now, a quarter-century later, the party does not permit public discussion of the brutal crackdown that ended China’s epic moment of democratic aspiration. Liberalizing impulses were quickly diverted into politically safer channels, as Deng and his heirs focused on opening markets and launching a period of astounding economic growth.
Of course, Deng Xiaoping had encouraged free expression. In his effort to steer China toward free enterprise and prosperity he had allowed a level of freedom of speech.
But, was it really about Western liberal democracy? To those of us in the West it looked like Woodstock. To Deng and his colleagues, all of whom had lived through and been victimized by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it looked like the return of the Red Guards. When an adolescent in pajamas, by name of Wu'er Kaixi went on national television screens to berate and humiliate the Chinese premier, Li Peng, the old guard was reminded of the Red Guards and their practice of systematically humiliating and murdering government officials.
True enough, as Schell says, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations showed that the government had lost control. And, surely, it needed to regain control. It did so by suppressing the student rebellion violently. None of us liked it, but to see it as the prelude to a democratic rebellion was short-sighted.
Deng was trying to save his economic program. He was trying to save free enterprise and to make China great. In that he succeeded, even if he did so in ways that we deplore. And yet, if you were faced with the choice of handing the nation over to the Red Guards and suppressing them before they could get started, what would you do? It's easier to make these decisions from a safe distance.
Anyway, the current leader of China sounds more like a pragmatist than an ideologue. Apparently, the lesson he draw from Tiananmen was that democracy was alien to Chinese culture and tradition. Despite what Schell thinks China does not have a tradition of liberal democracy or human rights.
Schell notes that Xi has been more pragmatic than idealistic:
As he told European dignitaries in Belgium in 2014, “Constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarianism, a multiparty system and a presidential system—we considered them, tried them, but none worked.” For China to “copy a political system or development model from other countries,” he said, “would not fit us, and it might even lead to catastrophic consequences.”
Schell still hopes for a miracle, but he sees the writing on the wall:
In contrast to previous eras of reaction, recently won social and cultural freedoms remain intact for ordinary Chinese, but a far-reaching turn to democracy has become increasingly hard to imagine.
He adds, somewhat churlishly, that the Chinese have been bought off by prosperity:
Many ordinary Chinese are, in fact, beguiled by the “China dream” that he has outlined and the promise of a wealthier, more dynamic and more powerful country, and he has allowed them to continue enjoying a degree of personal (if not political) discretion that their parents could hardly have imagined.
Mao had brought starvation and famine. The new leaders have brought prosperity and respect. What would you choose?