A recent NY Times bio of China’s next Supreme Leader, Xi Jinping, gives us the standard version of the Chinese Democracy Question. Will he loosen the Communist Party’s grip on political power?
The implication of the article–and of most of our media’s analysis of Chinese politics–is that Xi will either allow for multi-party politics, or China will remain undemocratic.
Democracy in China, however, is much more complex than this either/or premise. My guess is that the next generation of China’s leadership will successfully create a highly democratic, single party political system.
Thriving democracy under the strict control of the Communist Party? What the 什么？
Here’s what I predict: under Xi’s leadership, those who call for western style democracy will continue to be crushed. Liu Xiaobo will remain in prison. At the same time, we will see increasingly open debate between the central and provincial governments. The U.S. has the Democrats vs the Republicans. China will have Beijing vs Sichuan.
Foreigners doing business in China are already shocked to see just how diverse and diffuse power actually is under the Communist Party. There is no monolith.
To American ears, it sounds strange to say true democracy could exist if it is merely within the Communist Party. But from the Chinese perspective, the reverse is strange: how, my Chinese friends often ask me, can democracy exist merely within capitalism?
(Of course, it’s not just Communists noting the possible incompatibility of democracy and capitalism. There’s the famous quote from Louis Brandeis, “we can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” More recently uber-capitalist luminaries like Robert Reich have expressed similar sentiments. And libertarians have long noted that democracy is the enemy of the free market. Here, if nowhere else, Milton Friedman and Michael Moore are in total agreement.)
China has no need to choose between democracy and one party rule. They can have both.