Democratic Vistas?

Jiang Zemin
Jiang Zemin; drawing by David Levine


In August 1980 Deng Xiaoping laid down the Communist Party’s view of democracy. It continues to cripple China and is used both inside the country and by its apologists abroad to avoid the issue of repression. Deng said:

Democracy without socialist legality, without the Party’s leadership and without discipline and order is definitely not socialist democracy. On the contrary, that sort of democracy would only plunge our country once again into anarchy and make it harder to truly democratize the life of the country, develop the economy and raise the people’s standard of living.

This observation, resting on the widespread Chinese fear of luan, disorder, is a big lie: it was issued in response to the Cultural Revolution in which, according to then-Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 set off the Tiananmen uprising, 100 million people suffered persecution. Deng wanted to portray the Cultural Revolution as the wrong kind of democracy. By his definition, Mao was a democrat—the same Mao who in a Party resolution of 1981, approved by Deng, was held responsible for the Cultural Revolution, which the document described as the greatest catastrophe to befall China since 1949.

But Deng’s warning may have fallen on many receptive ears. According to Andrew Nathan in his deeply perceptive and eloquent collection of essays, most Chinese, including intellectuals, are far more intolerant of “deviant viewpoints” than people in the US, Italy, Germany, Australia, Britain, and Austria. This is a telling conclusion. As Mr. Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia, points out, “Some students of democracy consider tolerance the essential ingredient of democratic politics.”

Although Mr. Nathan’s long interest in Chinese democracy extends to sheltering democrats like Wei Jingsheng at Columbia’s East Asian Institute (Nathan is banned from China), he is a realist about what China’s democrats want. Most of the leading democrats, he observes, are now in American exile. In 1989 he wrote that Chinese democracy in practice “may turn out to be a mixture of democratic and authoritarian elements, openness and secrecy, idealism and selfishness, turbulence and stability,…moral and symbolic posturing, stress on person-al loyalty in politics, frequent betrayals, extreme rhetoric, emotional in-tensity…and consequent difficulty in pragmatic compromise.”1

Of course, the big question is: Can democracy be tried in China and, if it is, can it work? Many foreigners who want good relations with Beijing say no to both questions. President Clinton’s public defense of democracy during his recent visit to China, and more particularly his condemnation of the Tiananmen killings in 1989, marked a reversion to his earlier attitude toward Beijing. That the President could be heard live and nationwide, moreover, may indicate that some basic taboos imposed by the Chinese Communists have begun to erode. What seems clear is that if the US president is willing to be outspoken about human rights, the Chinese leaders, contrary to many predictions, will back away from…

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