Courtesy Reuters

China's Hidden Democratic Legacy


Ever since Deng Xiaoping began to undercut Mao Zedong's revolution in late 1978, halting and then attenuated political reform has been the hallmark of China's ruling Communist Party. Notwithstanding the tectonic events of 1989, this high-wire act between too much and too little political and economic reform has kept China relatively stable for almost a quarter of a century. But it has also left the People's Republic of China (PRC) in a state of extreme contradiction, its newly adopted market economy straining against a political structure borrowed from Stalin's Russia. Whether the PRC will be able to continue straddling the widening divide between its economic system and its anachronistic political system is the most crucial question that China faces -- especially if the current boom turns to a bust.

No one knows where, in its very energetic way, China is expecting to go. But it is becoming more and more difficult to imagine that it can continue to transform itself into a more stable, cosmopolitan, and global country without a clearer sense of its ultimate political destination. The Chinese Communist Party has so far prevented the sort of directed, public discussion that could lead to such a vision. As Beijing University professor Jiao Guobiao said recently, "[Chinese intellectuals] are supposed to act like children who never talk back to their parents." But China's leaders cannot forestall debate forever.

When the time for national discussion does finally arrive, what process might the Chinese people use to decide how it should advance and what it should become? Where should contemporary Chinese intellectuals, politicians, and leaders turn for ideas and potential models? In short, how should China go about the task of politically reinventing itself? Fortunately, China is able look to its own past for ideas, if not answers.


All too many discussions of democracy in China have foundered precisely because they were viewed as overly U.S.- or Eurocentric. Indeed, when it has

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