China on the Road to Democracy?

A Theoretical Investigation on China's Political Future

Seminar Paper 2008 14 Pages

South Asian Studies, South-Eastern Asian Studies



1. Introduction

2. What is democracy?

3. Democratization theory

4. The political system of China
4.1 What is a political system?
4.2 China’s contemporary political system
4.2.1 Form of government at the national level
4.2.2 Party system The Communist Party of China (CPC) Other parties

5. China in the light of Freedom House
5.1 The Freedom House results for 2008

6. China’s reception of democracy
6.1 Confucianism vs. Democracy?
6.2 Experiments with democracy
6.2.1 The First Republic
6.2.2 Democratization of village self-governance
6.3 Democratic movements in the PRC
6.4 Democratic movements within the CPC
6.5 The ‘Asian way’

7. Summary

8. Conclusion

9. References
9.1 Bibliography
9.2 Suggestions for further reading
9.2.1 Books
9.2.2 Magazines
9.2.3 Internet sources

1. Introduction

During this year’s Olympic Summer Games, Beijing was the focal point of the world media. China had the chance to present itself in a way the Communist Party of China (CPC) tries to promote: Perfectly organized and happy Games should stand for China’s rise to a peaceful and responsible world power, for overcoming poverty, for economic growth and successful modernization, all of which were led by the CPC.

What about the real situation in the fourth largest country on this planet? To name a few issues: human rights, ecological sustainability, social justice and - last but not least - democratic transformation. Beijing’s answer to these problems: the creation of a “harmonic society”. This “harmony paradigm”, which is the most widely spread idea in the CPC under the current President Hu Jintao, should show that the Chinese leaders are aware of the societal problems and are working to overcome them. According to Hu, harmony means democracy, constitutionality, justice, sincerity, friendship and vitality. Will this kind of harmony be implemented by the CPC?

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

This paper will analyze the future development of China’s political system. Can China become a democracy? What factors may hinder or foster this process? First of all, I will try to define the term ‘democracy’ and then introduce some theoretical background about democratization. Secondly, the current political system will be described. Based on these explanations, the analysis will deal with China’s reception of democratic ideas and its way to political transformation.

2. What is democracy?

The term ‘democracy’ has its origins in the Greek language and literally means ‘rule of the people’ (demos = people; kratos = rule). Wikipedia describes this term as follows: “Democracy is a system of [popular] government by which political sovereignty is retained by the people and exercised directly by citizens.”1 Thus, a political system2 can be called democratic when its organizational political processes and structures prevent the rulers from deviating too much or too long from what the ruled are willing to accept.3

Even though there is no universally accepted definition of 'democracy', there are two principles that any definition of democracy include. The first principle is that all members of the society have equal access to power and the second that all members enjoy universally recognized freedoms, such as freedom of political expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Another key element of a democratic system is the separation of powers into three branches of government - legislative, executive and judicial - that are more or less independent and entail a system of checks and balances between them. Even though there are several varieties of democracy, this succinct clarification should be sufficient for the purpose of this paper.

3. Democratization theory

In theory, the democratization process consists of several stages. For instance, an authoritarian system can become democratic through the following three steps: (1) liberalization of the autocracy, (2) a period of transition and (3) the consolidation of democracy.4 The quality of such an emerging democracy varies, depending on numerous factors, such as the socio-economical development level of a society. However, profound economic crises or a low level of legitimacy, for example, may threaten the long-term prospects for stability in a young democracy.

Lipset argues: “The move toward democracy is not a simple one. Countries that previously have had authoritarian regimes may find it difficult to set up a legitimate democratic system, since their traditions and beliefs may be incompatible with the workings of democracy.”5 So, one might ask, what are the factors and processes affecting the prospects for the institutionalization of democracy?

First of all, contemporary social scientists find that greater affluence and higher rates of well- being correlate with the presence of democratic institutions. For instance, Epstein et al. conclude that “higher incomes per capita significantly [increase] the likelihood of democratic regimes, both by enhancing the consolidation of existing democracies and by promoting transitions from authoritarian to democratic systems.”6 Furthermore, social equality, perceived as equality of status and respect for individuals regardless of economic condition, is highly conducive for democracy. Free market economy produces a middle class that can stand up against the state. Schumpeter even held that “modern democracy is a product of the capitalist process.”7 Or as Lipset puts it: “A free market needs democracy and vice versa.”8

Others note that capitalism has been a necessary, but not sufficient condition. In line with this argument, Przeworski et al. state that “modernization - specifically, an increase in per capita GDP - is not a causal factor in the process of democratization.”9 Rather, they argue, democratic transitions occur randomly, but once there, countries with higher levels of GDP per capita remain democratic.

In addition, the political culture of a society is essential. Democracy requires a supportive culture, the acceptance by the citizenry and political elites of principles underlying freedom of speech, media, assembly, religions, of the rights of opposition parties, of the rule of law, of human rights, and the like. Lipset states that “cultural factors appear even more important than economic ones.”10 Whether a democratic system can be transplanted, adapted and survive in another culture remains an open question. Linder and Bächtiger believe that “[…] democratization is not a component that can be inserted successfully into any society at any point in its development. It is not achieved when elites simply introduce elections.”11 Democratic progress rather depends on a complex arrangement of social, cultural, economic and political factors. It is a process characterized by fragility and non-linearity.

Moreover, religious tradition has been a major factor in transformations to democracy. On the one hand, for example, there is a negative relationship between democracy and Confucianism. On the other, Protestantism and democracy have been positively interlinked. Another key aspect of democratization, according to Lipset, is institutionalization. It consists of legitimacy, executive and electoral systems, civil society and political parties, and finally, the rule of law and economic order. Also, the more the sources of power, status and wealth are concentrated in the state, the harder it is to institutionalize democracy.

Thus, so-called power sharing mechanisms have a positive effect on democratization. “Power sharing involves government in the hands of an elite coalition composed of the leaders of major religious, ethnic and social groups, proportional representation, a strong separation and diffusion of powers at the national level including mutual veto, and the decentralization of political powers to sub-national units.”12 Therefore, power sharing entails a horizontal dimension (diffusion of powers among actors of the central level of government) and a vertical dimension (diffusion of powers between different levels of government).

What is more, Linder and Bächtiger have found that extensive family and kinship systems are an obstacle for achieving higher levels of democracy. In contrast, cultural heterogeneity and male dominance do not seem to hinder democratization.

Finally, Epstein et al. finish:

“To this fruitful, ongoing debate we add a reminder that leaving autocracy is not the same as entering democracy. Between these two lie [so-called] partial democracies, which often act in a manner distinct from those countries either more or less democratic than they, and whose dynamics, while shaping contemporary politics, remain poorly understood.”


1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy, visited on: 7.9.08

2 see Chapter 4.1

3 Patzelt, 2007, p. 276

4 Schneider/Schmitter, 2004, p. 59-90

5 Lipset, 1994, p. 1

6 Epstein et al., 2006, p. 566

7 Lipset, 1994, p. 2

8 Lipset, 1994, p. 3

9 Epstein et al., 2006, p. 551

10 Lipset, 1994, p. 5

11 Linder/Bächtiger, 2005, p. 876

12 Linder/Bächtiger, 2005, p. 864


ISBN (eBook)
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423 KB
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Institution / College
University of Luzern – Politikwissenschaftliches Seminar
China Demokratie Demokratisierung Systemtransformation Politisches System vergleichende Politik Thema China



Title: China on the Road to Democracy?