Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy

Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping; drawing by David Levine

To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our view they are the hope of the future? The answer lies farther back than Deng Xiaoping’s aversion to the Red Guards who manhandled him in the Cultural Revolution twenty years ago. The sad fact is that China’s twentieth-century modernization of learning and the student class got started in two different directions at cross purposes. A brief look back may show us why Chinese politics is so out of step today.

Government in China is still elitist, not electoral. Behind the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989 lies the continuing modern conflict between the two wings of China’s political elite—the power-holders over the Party and army, on the one hand, and the intellectuals and student trainees for government service on the other hand. The tragedy was that the aged power-holders were stuck in the tradition of imperial autocracy, while the young students were modern-minded patriots.

A century ago these two wings of the elite were not yet split apart. The imperial autocracy of the last dynasty at Peking could still get its recruits for government service through the examination system, which used the Confucian classics as an ideological binding medium. Through study over many years the examinees indoctrinated themselves in the ideology of imperial Confucianism. Even in the 1890s they could still be relied upon to serve the Peking autocracy. Learning and politics were still mutually reinforcing in the Chinese equivalent of the Western style.

After Japan’s sudden victory over China in 1895 and the inroads of the imperialist powers, who made loans and secured concessions in their spheres of interest, the reformers of 1898 still sought to achieve their modernizing reforms through reinterpreting Confucianism, not discarding it. After 1901 the dynasty tried to begin the process. But in 1911 the Manchu dynasty collapsed. Parliamentary government in the Chinese Republic was torpedoed by the simple expedient of assassinating the would-be parliamentary leader (Sung Chiao-jen) in 1913.

In the twentieth century the institutional successor to family dynasties proved to be Party dictatorship, first as attempted rather loosely under Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang and second as achieved more tightly under Mao Zedong and the CCP. Chiang Kai-shek’s ideology of Sun Yat-senism was never very effective. But when the Communists came to power in 1949 they could use Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought as a new ideology to indoctrinate loyal party officials and soldiers.

Unfortunately about the time of the founding of the CCP in 1921 a deep split occurred among China’s intellectuals. They had broken free of the Confucian restraints and resolved to modernize China through “Science and Democracy,” their slogan when they demonstrated at the Tiananmen…

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