Chinese Democracy

For Americans, "democracy" is a cherished and familiar word. Proud of their own democratic institutions, most Americans have felt warmed and vindicated by the worldwide movements demanding democracy in the past ten years. But democracy does not mean the same thing to all people everywhere; it changes each time it translates into a different language and cultural context.

Democracy (translated into Chinese as " minzhu ," or "people-as-masters") is not a concept inherent in Chinese culture or political philosophy. In fact, it is in complete opposition to Confucian ideology, which stresses harmony and obedience. But neither is democracy a concept that has just recently taken hold in the minds of Chinese youth who have seen the wonders of democracy in Western-style discos and fast-food. The Chinese democratic tradition was begun nearly one hundred years before the white plaster statue erected on Tiananmen Square attracted the attention of the world. In those hundred years, it has been the cause of rebellions, arrests, purges, and endless debate on the best way to understand and implement such a complex form of social organization.

Democracy was introduced to China almost single-handedly by an exiled Chinese writer named Liang Qichao. In 1895, he was involved in protests in Beijing calling for increased participation in government by the Chinese people. It was the first protest of its kind in modern Chinese history. Escaping to Japan after the government crackdown on anti-Qing protesters, he translated and commented on the works of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Hume, Bentham and many more western political philosophers. He published his essays in a series of journals that easily found an audience among Chinese intelligentsia hungering for an explanation of why China, once a formidable empire of its own, was now on the verge of being dismembered by foreign powers. In interpreting Western democracy through the prism of his strongly Confucian background, Liang shaped the ideas of democracy that would be used throughout the next century.

Unlike the Western theorists he studied, Liang felt that there was no difference between the individual interests and public interests; individual citizens were granted rights in order to better strengthen the state. There was no need for individual rights in the Western sense, whose purpose was to protect the individual from the government. In his attempt to understand and implement democracy, then, Liang himself inadvertently set down justifications for the authoritarianism that would characterize China's "democratic" era.

Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists embraced democracy as well; they called the May 4th Movement of 1919 the beginning of the "New Democratic Revolution," and of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, the only similarity between the democracy of Mao Zedong and that of Liang Qichao was the concept of the unity of state and individual interests. Mao believed that the state must draw on the energies of the people to become strong; a state whose laws are imposed from above would never gain the support of its citizens. The rest of his democratic practices such as internal party discussions followed by unified policy implementation, he borrowed from Lenin.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was, in part, a radical attempt to achieve Mao's "Great Democracy" once and for all. Mao realized that the concentration of power within the Party had created a new privileged class, the bureaucracy, that was the biggest obstacle to attaining his ideal of democracy. But in attacking certain members of the Party while still maintaining that the Party had a right to leadership, Mao came close to completely undermining the rationale for Party support.

Deng Xiaoping, who himself had been purged in the Cultural Revolution, quickly reversed that. When he came to power in the late 1970's, he advocated a kind of democracy that would be played out like another Western pastime, basketball: "the contest should be held in a space confined by four lines." The four lines were socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the combination of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and party leadership. The greatest obstacle to democracy was not within the party, but rather was the "feudal culture" of the Chinese people themselves. This culture could not be changed by revolution, but only by gradual education, under the guidance of a strong authority. With that fact established, Deng set out to reverse the radical excesses of the Gang of Four era, and to bring about a series of political, economic, and social reforms that would allow China to "catch up" to the West and achieve the modernization it had been striving for ever since the time of Liang Qichao.

The first harbinger of political change was the reversal, in late 1978, of the condemnation of the Tiananmen Incident in 1976. Those who had been arrested were cleared of all charges. This action sparked a pro-democracy movement that quickly moved beyond the limits of what Deng and other party officials felt was gradual, Party-led social re-education. In fact, the Democracy Wall Movement (named for the large, high wall bordering a street near Tiananmen, where posters advocating various sorts of political and social change were pasted by various members of the populace) was a direct challenge to Party dictatorship. At first people gathered at the wall to read and discuss posters; soon, these discussions organized into study groups, and underground journals like "Enlightenment", "Beijing Spring", and "April 5th" sprang up, calling for everything from economic modernization to the establishment of a two-party system. The point, they said, was not to topple particular bureaucrats, but to "destroy the old state machinery"--jargon reminiscent of underground communist journals forty years earlier.

Out of the cacophony of cries for democracy and reform in 1978 and 1979, the loudest and most radical was that of Wei Jingsheng, a Beijing electrician and son of two high-ranking Party officials. He was shockingly direct and non-Marxist in his attack on the Party and Deng. "The hated old political system has not changed," he wrote in his most famous essay, "The Fifth Modernization." "When people ask for democracy they are only asking for something they rightfully own. Are not the people justified in seizing power from those overlords?" Indeed, Wei was the only advocate of democracy since Liang Qichao who had argued something approaching the idea that individual rights are separate from those of the state, that the right of individuals to defend their personal interests is natural and should not be considered a favor granted by the state. But even he was not willing to accept that democracy entailed conflict and disorder, and he was no more able than Liang Qichao to answer the question of how the struggle of individuals in defense of their personal rights could possibly produce harmony.

In March of 1979, Wei and other "non-Marxists" were arrested, their publications closed down, and the movement defined as a throwback to the radicalism of the Gang of Four. Wei was sentenced to fifteen years in prison on trumped-up charges of leaking secret information to foreigners and publishing counterrevolutionary statements. At the time, most democracy activists admired Wei for his courage, but not for what he said; the methods he advocated went against not only the teachings of Marx and the communist party, but also of the entire Chinese intellectual tradition.

Given this long and tortuous history of democracy in China, and the numerous connotations and layers of meaning associated with the term "minzhu", when the term appeared on wall posters again in 1989, it was sometimes used less for its intrinsic meaning than for its ability to link present concerns with those of the past. In defining their movement as a patriotic one, the student protesters of 1989 tried hard to root themselves in Chinese history. When banners appeared saying, "If you want to know about democracy ask Wei Jingsheng," it did not mean that the students' views on the political primacy of rights in a democratic system were the same as those of Wei Jingsheng (in fact, many students in 1989 had not even read Wei's writings); it was more of a call to arms, a challenge to speak out as boldly as Wei did and realize the consequences of "free speech" in a totalitarian state. The images conjured up by the term "minzhu", much like the American images conjured up by the term "democracy", were often more immediate and powerful than ponderous analyses of the ins and outs of political philosophy.

The conjuring power of the word "democracy" worked in more than one way, though. Since the turn of the century, democracy has been associated with the West and the strength and wealth that the West represented. From 1919 on, democracy has been seen as capable of providing a political system that would let China compete. This feeling was reinforced during the 1980's reforms, when Chinese youth saw the material wealth and freedom of the West at the same time they felt themselves both materially and ideologically impoverished. For a number of Chinese both inside and outside the democratic tradition, democracy was linked as much to Marlboros and Michael Jackson as it was to Wei Jingsheng and May 4th.

The power of the word "democracy" worked on Western viewers of the 1989 movement as well. Chinese students knew from experience that describing their struggle as a "democratic" one was the best way to win international sympathy in the industrialized West. The "Goddess of Democracy," although it had plenty of antecedents in Chinese religious and political ceremonies, was also instrumental in tugging the heartstrings of millions of Westerners who drew a connection to the Statue of Liberty and assumed that Chinese aspirations were identical to their own.

In short, in 1989, democracy was a catchword that connoted almost more than it defined. It was used to describe a morally desirable system of governance involving free elections, a system in which intellectuals would have much more say in how the nation was run; to signify a world in which there was greater personal freedom; and to invoke ties both to a wealthy industrialized West and simultaneously to a patriotic, nationalistic Chinese tradition.

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