Opinion: Is China Ready for Democracy?

by Admin - May 03, 2021 0 Comment

Is China Ready for Democracy?

                                -A review of Ci Jiwei’s “Democracy in China: the Coming Crisis”

 Teng Biao

The question of whether China is going to democratize has growing importance, given the fact that China is playing an increasingly significant role on the international stage, and the fact that China’s political landscape has changed dramatically over the past two decades, especially after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. The prominent professor of philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, Ci Jiwei, in his book “Democracy in China: the Coming Crisis”, provides a nuanced and profound discussion of this question. Ci argues that the one-party rule in China can’t be perpetuated when the social conditions are ripe for democratization. He contends that “China’s increasingly democratic society is creating an objective and irresistible need for transition to a democratic political regime” (Ci, p.123) Though I disagree with some of his assertions, this book is thought-invoking from both intellectual and practical perspective. It is worth reading in a time when many western observers and politicians, for nearly two past decades, have lost the academic and political imagination to envision a free China.

Ci’s major arguments are not normative (value-based) but prudential (need-based), which is a useful approach. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a similar case of democratization, in history or even to imagine one in the future, that is as complicated as that of contemporary China.  Consider China’s population, area, economy, contested tradition, center-local structure, rapid change in social structure and psychology, geopolitical sensitivity in the world, and so forth. 

The CCP’s Blood Debt

It’s true that the status quo can’t be defended and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would play a significant role in the process of political change.  According to Ci, “[t]he main reason for having democracy in China is that democracy is our best bet for effectively responding to current and especially impending legitimation challenges.”(Ci, p.12) The CCP must be aware that only a democratic system can solve the existing social and political crisis, and “only the party is capable of keeping the lid on the Pandora’s Box, morally and politically speaking.” (Ci, p.25) But there are still reasons to doubt the willingness of the CCP to permit, not to mention to lead, a transition to constitutional democracy. 

A crucial element that the author did not discuss is “the blood debt (xuezhai)”. Since the CCP established its totalitarian system in 1949, the Party has committed extremely cruel and immense anti-humanitarian crimes. An incomplete list would include the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries (1950-1953), Land Reform (1947-1952) , Three-Anti/Five-Anti Campaigns(1951-1952), Anti-Rightist Movement (1957-1959), Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Strike Hard (1983), Tiananmen Massacre(1989), Persecution of Falungong (ongoing, since 1999), One-Child Policy (1979-2015), and the cultural genocide, concentration camps and killings in Tibet and Xinjiang. Hundreds of millions of Han Chinese, Tibetans, Uyghurs, etc. have been subjected to the CCP’s atrocities and are still suffering its brutal policies and practice, such as the discriminatory hukou system, torture, wrongful convictions, corruption, force demolition, religious persecution, and arbitrary detention. 

The rapid economic growth since the 1980s reduced some of the anger and suffering, but “the blood debt” is what the CCP cannot eliminate and dares not to forget. It is not an exaggeration to say that the blood debt the CCP owes to the People in China is more extensive than other dictatorial regimes since the Third Reich. In my opinion, this is a huge barrier to democratic change. Even though the Chinese elites and dissidents tend to accept an approach of South African-style “Truth and Reconciliation”, the majority of Chinese ordinary people seem not to. It’s worth noting that in Charter 08, an impressive manifesto initiated by Liu Xiaobo and hundreds of Chinese pro-democracy intellectuals, has an article of “transitional justice” which emphasizes truth, responsibility, and reconciliation. And even if the Chinese people refrain from the strong sentiment of “revenge and counterattack”(Qingshan), which is very unlikely, the CCP leaders would find it hard to believe that “ordinary citizens” “would reward the CCP with an important, even a leading, role in a democratic China.”(Ci, p.24) The longer the party-state remains, the more crimes it will commit, the more people will suffer, and the more difficult it will be for the CCP to believe that they will be forgiven by the people. To permit a democratic China means to end the CCP’s monopoly of political power, and the CCP has sufficient reason to be afraid of being retaliated against by the blood “debtors”. This, in turn, makes the CCP’s decision-makers (a few dozen of the top privileged families) not in favor of any democratic transition, argues Ci. 



In this context, it is worth recalling what Deng Xiaoping famously said after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre that the regime would be willing to “kill 200,000 people in exchange for 20 years of stability!” Relatedly, Xi Jinping made a comment about the Soviet Union’s collapse: “In the end, nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.” After three decades of rampant corruption under state-capitalism “with Chinese characteristics,” the CCP leaders and officials have more reason to worry about the historical “blood debt” and hostility of the citizenry than in the Deng era. They have to calculate two different disastrous consequences: to deal with the accumulated trouble that will be engendered by sticking with the status quo, or, to face the risk of being retaliated against during and after a political change. 

Can we safely say the next leadership “will inherit the fear of [the Tiananmen Massacre] but not the resoluteness” (Ci, p.81)? Not so much. This is not essentializing the CCP, but we should not forget its historical atrocities, and a possible massacre should not be excluded from a prudential approach. When Ci conducted the cost-benefit analysis of the CCP, he did not distinguish the CCP’s interest from China’s national interest. On most occasions, the two are in conflict, as I see it. We will make a political and intellectual mistake if we claim or imply that the CCP‘s decision-making is based on the interests of China or Chinese people. Furthermore, when considering the CCP regarding decision-making, it is more of a few dozens of privileged families on the top, not of the 90 million CCP members. In this context, it’s difficult not to fall into wishful thinking and predict that the party would “[put] China’s gradual, orderly progress towards democracy on its political agenda.” (Ci, p.254) 

Transition to “High-tech Totalitarianism”?

Professor Ci’s optimistic expectation for democratization in China is heavily based on “the equality of conditions” in China today, and he quotes historian Charles Maier’s claim that “political forms followed changes in social structure”.(Ci, p.21)  Ci argues that “With the remarkable advance of the equality of conditions”, including economic, ideological and social conditions, China “is already on the verge of democracy”, and it’s hard to “justify and to maintain a completely vertical political structure devoid of credible popular consent”. (Ci, pp.108-113) The equality of conditions is seen as “the most powerful domestic cause of democratic transformation”. (Ci, p.379) I think these are important and roughly correct observations, but there is a huge gap between socio-political psychology and political collective action, moreover, is “the equality of conditions” reversible?

For the past four decades, “we find in China to a substantial degree, democratic society, democratic epistemology, and a democratic conception of virtue.”(Ci, p.21) The limited permission of liberal ideas since the 1980s, especially in the 1990s, was consistent with its adoption of “socialist market economy”. I second that the logic and force of (state-)capitalism did profoundly impact Chinese society, culture, and even politics. The legal system was also developed in many positive aspects. But as I see it, the inequality is still enormous, one of many examples is the hukou system, which relegates hundreds of millions of rural residents and migrant workers' “second-class citizen” status. There is also increasing doubt in the statement or assumption that “the middle class” in China will demand liberal democracy. (Andrew Nathan, 2016) And there is a clear limit to social liberalization and improvements in the legal system. The CCP did not and will never tolerate any challenge to its political monopoly. The rise and fall of the Rights Defense Movement(Wei Qian yundong) since the early 2000s is a good example: on the one hand, it was developed in the social space created by marketization, the internet, semi-independent media outlets, and the new discourse and practice of rule by law (yifa zhiguo, not “rule of law”); on the other hand, it was almost wiped out after Xi came to power when the CCP regarded the Rights Defense Movement as a threat to the security of the regime. (Teng Biao, 2019a) 

Needless to say, Xi has significantly changed the political landscape in China, especially by the abolition of term limits for the presidency. But in my opinion, many essential political arrangements remain unchanged since 1949, including the CCP’s monopolistic power over the military and judiciary, and to a slightly lesser extent, on media and ideology, which all are fundamental characteristics of totalitarianism. (Brzezinski & Friedrich, 1956) Over time, in Stein Ringen’s formulation (2016), China has developed into a sort of “Contrology” or “sophisticated totalitarianism”.  It is not Xi himself turning against the will of the whole CCP. To lead the regime from a collective dictatorship in Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao era, to a more personal dictatorship closer to Maoism, can be seen as the collective choice of the CCP in order to respond to the comprehensive crisis it’s facing, including in the political, financial, social and ideological spheres, and the “legitimation crisis” Professor Ci analyzes in his book. (Teng Biao, 2018) The CCP has cruelly restricted the space for civil society and tightened its control through traditional Maoist methods, as well as modern technology. 



An unprecedented “high-tech totalitarianism”, in my terminology, is looming in China. The CCP utilizes its lead in artificial intelligence to make its death grip on Chinese society even more total. China’s Great Firewall, social media, Big Data, e-commerce, and modern telecommunications makes it easier than before for the CCP to keep people under surveillance, akin to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The Internet has been used by the CCP as an effective tool for censorship, propaganda, and brainwashing. Facial recognition, voiceprint recognition, gait recognition, DNA collection, and biometric tags have all systematized the CCP’s growing control. In Shandong province, virtual reality (VR) was used to test party members’ level of loyalty to the CCP.  The social credit system is a horrible case that may have surpassed the imagination of George Orwell. (Teng Biao, 2019b) It may not be alarmist to revisit Hayek’s warning– “Fascism is the stage reached after communism has proved an illusion.” (Hayek, 1944)  

If the CCP strengthens its “high-tech totalitarianism”, it would be an alternative to the prudential case of democracy, at least this dictatorial regime might last much longer than Professor Ci and many others have imagined. It will make the resistance on the ground extremely difficult. Under an advanced version of “1984”, any collective resistance – from information, communication, to organization and mobilization — becomes unlikely. What’s worse is, at the same time, the CCP’s propaganda and brainwashing will be more effective.

 The Tiananmen massacre made the Chinese people live in what I have called the “Post-Tank Syndrome.” Anger and fear turned into silence, silence into indifference, and indifference into cynicism. Brainwashing, a distorted market economy, and corrupt politics have created an atmosphere of consumerism and instilled widespread nationalism and social Darwinism in China. In the atmosphere of fear and despair, in the temptation of desire and power, most Chinese people admire and support those who have power and money. Increasingly indifferent to universal values and morality, people forget, marginalize, and mock freedom fighters and prisoners of conscience. The most horrible autocracy is not the one suppressing resistance, but the one making you feel unnecessary to resist, or even making you defend the regime. (Teng Biao, 2019b) It is part of the social thoughts and mental habits – to use Tocqueville’s word, “mores” – in China today. The consequence of the long-term one-party rule is not only the suppression of freedom and human rights but also the moral and social decay, which is even more far-reaching. It seems to be a dilemma: the more undemocratic a political system is, the less social and thought conditions there are to start smooth democratization.

Nationalism and Contested Identities

A guiding ideology normally plays a salient role in a totalitarian regime, but the post-Mao era saw an obvious decline of the teleological-revolutionary discourse. This was parallel to the political and economic “reform and opening up” (gaige kaifang) policy. Gradually, the CCP has transformed from a dogmatic party to a pragmatic party. It partly contributed to the “equality of conditions” for the past four decades, and also brought concerns of ideological insecurity. Xi Jinping’s turning to Maoist propaganda and cult of personality can be seen as a reaction to the pragmatic trend. It is not plausible anymore to resort to quasi-theological Marxism or Communism, hence statism-nationalism became a useful tool to mobilize national solidarity. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang have been increasingly targeted and facing more pressure and persecution. The global ambition – the China Dream or “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” – became the new slogan. Domestic separatism and “Western hostile forces” which were always labeled as enemies, seemingly returned to the center of the political stage. Official scholars defend the regime with Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty and enemy-friend distinction. Statism-nationalism, which will be an obstacle to democratization, needs to be closely observed, though Mao-style fanatic mass mobilization is almost impossible to copy.  

True, “performance is not legitimacy and legitimacy matters even more.” (Ci, p.58) The performance itself – the China Miracle that the Chinese authorities proudly advertised – has a dark side. (Teng Biao, 2019c) To name just a few of its problems, the extremely high Gini-coefficient, low labor rights, environmental degradation, rampant injustice and corruption. The policy of “reform and opening up” has changed the social and political landscape in many different aspects, but we should keep in mind that it came not from the party’s gift, but from its sin. Without the closed-door planned economy, mass mobilized totalitarianism, theft, and anti-intellectualism of the Mao era, there would have been little need for “Reform and Opening Up.” The motivation behind the reform and opening-up policy was to save the Party, not to move towards constitutional democracy, although the unintended consequence is the profound growth toward “the equality of conditions” which favor China’s democratic transition.  Ci’s analysis of the positive results of economic development is accurate, but it would not be a complete picture if we ignore or downplay the fact that the economic and technological achievements have facilitated the CCP’s capacity of controlling society.

From the vantage point of the CCP, maintaining territorial integrity is closely linked to political legitimacy. The concentration camps in Xinjiang and the extreme suppression in Tibet and Hong Kong, are not merely human rights violations, they are also a declaration of sovereignty by a powerful regime facing a legitimacy crisis. Ci argues that the political transition should be gradual and prudent, mainly because of “China’s need for an exceptionally strong central authority.”(Ci, p.260) “The fortunes of democracy in China are indissolubly bound up with a democratic or democratizing China’s ability to hold the entire country securely together and safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”  Indeed the territorial integrity and national identity issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, Southern Mongolia – particularly of Xinjiang and Tibet – might be the underestimated obstacle to China’s democratization. 

The claim that these regions are inseparable parts of China, however, a point that the Chinese government relentlessly propagandizes, is obviously false. If we say that territorial integrity should take priority over the democratic transition, we are seriously undermining the people’s right to self-determination and their firm resoluteness to fight for a high level of genuine autonomy or national independence. The power of national identity is not easy to be eliminated, even concentration camps won’t be able to accomplish that. And time matters. The longer the CCP’s rule lasts, the more distrust and hatred it will create, the more unlikely Xinjiang and Tibet are willing to remain in China.  Additionally, the longer the CCP’s repression and brainwashing remain, the more unlikely the Han Chinese people will understand and accept the right to self-determination of the Tibetans, Uighurs, and others. Whenever the CCP starts to lose control, it will be an opportunity they will seize upon to campaign for independence from China’s occupation. It will add enormous complications to China’s political transition, and people concerned about China’s democratic future should take this seriously. It requires a high level of wisdom, patience, and compassion. But importantly, to deny the right to self-determination is inconsistent with the principle of “democracy”. My take is the moral basis of democratic transition will be greatly eroded, if any democracy advocates disregard and oppress the effort of Tibetans, Uighurs, and other people calling for independence. 

“Political System Hostility”

China is the most populous autocracy and a major power playing an increasingly salient role on the International stage, so the international environment, especially the Western democracies’ China policy, is one of the main factors influencing China’s political transition, for better or for worse. “One legacy of [the cold war] that has proved especially potent and enduring for China is a widespread perception of its political system as morally inferior and hence in need of a fundamental change”. The one-sided “political system hostility” toward China, as Prof Ci calls it, “is sufficient to cause China to act, both domestically and in international relations, in ways, it would otherwise not act.” (p. 317) Yet in my opinion, it is barely problematic to claim China’s one-party dictatorship is morally inferior and politically undesirable compared with Western-style liberal democracy, even though it’s not possible to find a perfect democratic system in the real world. There will not be a single political model that everyone agrees with, but the brazen violation of human rights and suppression of freedom is not acceptable in the world after modernity. 

What matters is the CCP’s hostility toward liberal democracy, rather than the “political system hostility” toward China. The CCP has an exaggerated paranoia of “the color revolution”, seeing the increasing impact of the development of the internet, legal professions, liberal thoughts, and market economy. Freedom is powerfully contagious. Any totalitarian or authoritarian regime must sense the intrinsic necessity to control information and communication and to defame the constitutional democratic system. That’s one of the deepest reasons why Beijing has made extremely aggressive decisions to get rid of Hong Kong’s freedom and rule of law. 

It is nothing wrong to argue that the Chinese political system needs a “fundamental change”,  and China will be democratized sooner or later.  There have been many negative and controversial examples of the U.S. policy of pushing “regime change”, thus in western democracies, decision-makers have given up this policy for a long time, to a great extent. After 1989, the west widely and extensively assumed that China will honor more and more freedom, open society, and automatically become a democracy if the world encourages and allows China to engage in the international legal system and the World Trade Organization. However, this had been proven part of the “China fantasy”, as Mann reminded us 13 years ago. (James Mann, 2007) The business opportunism at the expense of human rights and democracy heavily contributed to the rise of  Anti-democratic China. As I repeatedly pointed out, unprincipled engagement with an autocratic regime, is an alias for appeasement. China and the rest of the world now rely on each other in terms of not only economic issues, but also geopolitical issues.  The Western business prioritized profits from the amazingly huge Chinese market over human rights concerns, and the western democracies have been apparently reluctant to promote the democratization of China, soon after the ephemeral Tiananmen sanctions after the 1989 Massacre. In the context of China’s democracy, the west’s appeasement and opportunism might be more problematic than regime change. An ongoing profound change on the international stage is many countries have realized China’s threat to the liberal international order, and tend to be tougher on China. The relation between China and the West has come to an end and there’s no turning back, but it is still too early to tell how this would affect China’s democratization process.

There are many other interesting and important arguments in this book that need to explore further. To conclude, is China ready for a meaningful democracy?  Professor Ci argues that the Chinese society has been substantially democratized and “the equality of conditions” is fundamentally irreversible and that the CCP, especially the next leadership, has great need, interest, and capacity to accept or lead a democratic transition. Yet my view is that while there are many positive factors to suggest perhaps, the uncertainties and obstacles are even greater. 

(published at, and Contemporary China Review, March 2021)

Teng Biao, Grove Human Rights Scholar, Hunter College; Pozen Visiting Professor, the University of Chicago. [email protected]  

Brzezinski & Friedrich, 1956, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. Harvard University Press.

Friedrich von Hayek, 1944, The Road to Serfdom. University of Chicago Press. 

Ci Jiwei, “Democracy in China: the Coming Crisis”, Harvard University Press, 2019.

Andrew Nathan, The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class, Journal of Democracy, April 2016.

Stein Ringen, 2016, The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, Hong Kong University Press.

Teng Biao, 2018, Has Xi Jinping Changed China? Not Really, China File.

– 2019a, Rights Defense and New Citizens’ Movement, Handbook on Human Rights in China, Edited by Sarah Biddulph and Joshua Rosenzweig, Edward Edgar.

-2019b, From 1989 to “1984”: Tiananmen Massacre and China’s High-tech Totalitarianism, Contemporary Chinese Political Economy and Strategic Relations (CCPS), Vol.5, No. 2, June/August 2019. 

– 2019c, The Shadow of the “China Miracle”, 

James Mann, The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China, Penguin Books, 2007.