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Long Time Coming
The Prospects for Democracy in China
JOHN L. THORNTON is a Professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management and its School of Public Policy and Management, in Beijing, and Director of the university's Global Leadership Program. He is also Chair of the Board of the Brookings Institution.See more by this author
China's leaders have held out the promise of some form of democracy to the people of China for nearly a century. After China's last dynasty, the Qing, collapsed in 1911, Sun Yat-sen suggested a three-year period of temporary military rule, followed by a six-year phase of "political tutelage," to guide the country's transition into a full constitutional republic. In 1940, Mao Zedong offered followers something he called "new democracy," in which leadership by the Communist Party would ensure the "democratic dictatorship" of the revolutionary groups over class enemies. And Deng Xiaoping, leading the country out of the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, declared that democracy was a "major condition for emancipating the mind."
When they used the term "democracy," Sun, Mao, and Deng each had something quite different in mind. Sun's definition -- which envisioned a constitutional government with universal suffrage, free elections, and separation of powers -- came closest to a definition recognizable in the West. Through their deeds, Mao and Deng showed that despite their words, such concepts held little importance for them. Still, the three agreed that democracy was not an end in itself but rather a mechanism for achieving China's real purpose of becoming a country that could no longer be bullied by outside powers.
Democracy ultimately foundered under all three leaders. When Sun died, in 1925, warlordism and disunity still engulfed many parts of China. In his time, Mao showed less interest in democracy than in class struggle, mass movements, continuous revolution, and keeping his opponents off balance. And Deng demonstrated on a number of occasions -- most dramatically in suppressing the Tiananmen protests of 1989 -- that he would not let popular democratic movements overtake party rule or upset his plan for national development.
Today, of course, China is not a democracy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a monopoly on political power, and the country lacks freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and other fundamental attributes of a pluralistic liberal system. Many inside and outside China remain skeptical about the prospects for political reform. Yet much is happening -- in the government, in the CCP, in the economy, and in society at large -- that could change how Chinese think about democracy and shape China's political future.