Wendy Qian

Chinese Race and Democracy — Debunking an Old Anxiety

(Lai Ryanne/Flickr)
(Lai Ryanne/Flickr)

Jailed Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo once said in a 1988 interview:

In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would take 300 years of colonialism for it to be able to transform into how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough.

Liu also said,

Why could Confucian thoughts govern China for so many years and still persist to this day? I have no answer. I’ve said it before, this may have to do with [the Chinese] race.

These controversial quotes, which imply that the Chinese are racially inferior — or at least, less disposed to certain types of governance — may not accurately reflect Liu’s current views, but it does reflect a visceral worry among China’s intellectuals. Yet how does this fear factor into debate about constitutionalism and democracy today?

Guo Shiyou, a professor of history at Tongji University, believes that race plays no role in political development. In his article for last month’s Yanhuang Chunqiu, a political magazine, he discusses the historical background of, and debate about, “constitutional government.” Professor Guo believes that Taiwan’s implementation of a constitutional government shows that race is not an obstacle to Mainland China’s political future:

Taiwan’s constitutional [experience] not only has value for Taiwan; it also shows that the Chinese people can execute democratic politics through their own efforts; [China] does not need to follow Hong Kong’s example and ‘borrow the womb for bearing a baby.’

Zhao Xiao, a professor of economics at the University of Science and Technology Beijing and an outspoken Christian, also argued against the idea that democracy was an American ideal to which Chinese should not aspire. On Sina Weibo, Zhao wrote:

If you speak of constitutionalism or democracy, people may accuse you of being ‘a fan of America’…and accuse you of being part of an American conspiracy. Actually, Americans who wish for China to take the path of constitutionalism and democracy all love China…In contrast, only white supremacists and racists do not want China to take the path of America, they say that the Chinese people don’t deserve it.

Some scholars, while promoting constitutionalism, warned against a blind pursuit of political reforms. He Weifang, a lawyer and a strong advocate for constitutionalism, cautioned against the dangerous rhetoric of democracy. He justified his recent reposting of an article he wrote in 2001, The Clever Uses of a Ballot Box:

The current argument over constitutionalism gives people the feeling that ‘the age of constitutionalism’ is finally coming. We have to reflect deeply and thoroughly on democratic and constitutional values again, in order to decrease futile efforts.

In his post, He noted that violence was committed during the Cultural Revolution in the name of democracy. Some Weibo users have already tapped into this problematic rhetoric reminiscent of the slogans from the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Renhan (@张仁瀚), a member of Guangzhou City’s Baiyun government think tank, wrote:

Opposing constitutionalism is opposing humanity—anyone who continues to oppose constitutionalism and rob society by using state power stolen [from the people] will be eliminated eventually by this country’s people.

Regardless of the underlying merits of constitutionalism in China, as a political matter, constitutionalism and strong rule of law are nowhere in sight as long as the Party remains in charge. Beijing entrepreneur and constitutionalism enthusiast Moju (@墨鉅) argued that Taiwanese ruler Chiang Ching-kuo’s clout proved essential for ending authoritarian rule in Taiwan. While China’s Deng Xiaoping could have done the same, Deng is no longer here to make that call. Moju believes that any Party member who advocates for political reform nowadays will be charged with “corruption.”

Still, chatter online show strong support for constitutionalism, and a Chinese path to it that does not involve colonialism. Liu Suli, the owner of the independent Wansheng Bookstore, posted on the unequal execution of clauses in the current constitution:

When people mention that ‘China’s constitution and law sufficiently protect their citizen’s freedom of speech and association,’ it has not upheld the promise of execution. Yet [clauses like] ‘China punishes the people who encourage separatism and subverts the nation’s sovereignty and destroys social stability’…has been executed without slack.

Given the very real dangers surrounding political reform, scholars and intellectuals are calling for caution even as they call for change.

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Wendy Qian

Wendy graduated from a liberal arts college this year. Originally from the East Coast, Wendy has spent several years living in Haikou and Beijing. After reporting for China Daily and contributed for China Digital Times, she started her Chinese blog http://wendyqian.wordpress.com. She listens to music ranging from Bollywood to rap and hopes to travel to India again.
  • Matthew Cooper

    On the contrary; speaking as an American who loves China, I don’t want China to copy our institutions or practices wholesale, because we’ve already bollocksed-up our own system so badly through selfishness, greed, ignorance and apathy. The Chinese people can do and should aspire for better.


  • Mtt

    Liberal democracy has nothing to do with ethnicity, look at Korea. It was divided into two countries, one is a brutal and impoverished feudal Stalinist tyranny while the other is a dynamic and prosperous liberal democracy.

  • Kerry

    Great article Wendy. I must also agree with Matthew’s comment. I am an American that lives in Taiwan. I was able to participate to some degree in the recent Presidential election in Taiwan and found it every bit as exciting as the one in the ‘States…only of a shorter duration!!! I also don’t think it is necessary to make China look and feel like an American democracy. America is unique to the culture, traditions, and history that preceded it’s birth. China will forge its own path I believe, and they can learn from the weaknesses of the American way. Don’t get me wrong…I love America, but I also love the Chinese culture and traditions.

  • Amy Werbel

    Really interesting article — thanks! It reminds me of the short documentary “Please Vote for Me,” about a small moment of experimentation with democracy in a third grade classroom in Wuhan. The quotes here, and the experiment there, all exhibit anxiety about whether constitutionalism is possible in China. But I think these anxieties are fed by a deep sense of pessimism about the possibility of getting there, as much as any concern about whether democracy could be viable.

  • upupandaway9

    Very many foriegners love China and the Chinese, contrary to what the Chinese have been taught for generations.
    The real questions now is “Do the Chinese love modern China ?

  • stylites.net

    When will these people finally become post-racial?

    • yutoutang

      People will be post-racial when we become post-human. Not sooner.

  • pfcwms

    You don’t need to agree with most of what Liu Xiaobo wrote in order to agree with his support of a more constitutional and democratic system of governance in China, or to view his harsh 11-year term as evidence for what’s wrong with single-party Leninist authoritarian rule. I certainly don’t agree with either of those two quotes by Liu Xiaobo, and see in Wendy Qian’s quote from Guo Shaoyu a far more sensible view of the potential compatibility between Chinese culture and a constitutional form of governance under the rule of law, as presently exists in Taiwan. The main impediment to the growth of constitutionalism and democracy in the PRC is the ruling special interest group’s insistence upon monopolizing the levers of governmental authority and power without any sorts of checks and balances or accountability to the Chinese populace whatsoever.

  • yutoutang

    Liu is a traitor, and a fool

    Democracy should be opposed simply because it is a manifestation of immature idealism. It is the idea that individual voices and liberties are more important than collective interest and the collective power to exercise national strength. This may be worthwhile in the sense of individualism, but individualism has no intrinsic value.

    A scattered, partisan nation is not as powerful or effective as a united one, with a singular head. The ruling party may make mistakes, but at least it moves in some sort of direction. Democracy, especially in its later stages, is designed to promote indecisive partisanship, preventing it from ever taking drastic action, and allowing the country to remain mired in mediocrity. This may, at best, create a comfortable place to live. But it does not create a successful, competitive, nation-state. And despite delusions of internationalist, we’re-all-human rhetoric, the reality is that most humans feel the need to advance their collective interests based on their identity. A divided, democratic nation simply does not have the political structure for such endeavours.

    • wes707

      Sounds like you’re an apologist for fascism.

  • Mateusz82

    What exactly is the “Chinese race”? That’s a problem that needs to be addressed. China is a nation made up of 56 recognized ethnicities, and many more unrecognized (at least officially) ethnicities. It’s not one race any more than there is an American race. The problem is the perception that China only belongs to one race (hence terms like “Chinese race”). I’m multi-ethnic, and some of my ancestors originated in China, yet I am not Han.

    • Myra Esoteric

      Um I’m thinking that people there are talking about in contrast to Western Europeans, which are definitely a different race from Han, Zhuang, Uighur, etc and the mix of folks usually found in China.

      • Mateusz82

        If so, then they should say so. The language we use should be precise, and used with thought. If someone means the Han ethnicity, then they should say “Han”, not Chinese. Otherwise, it is exclusionary towards Chinese of other ethnicities, making them second class.

        The problem is that terms like “race”, “ethnicity” and “nationality” are not only being conflated, but the definitions of the terms are very vague. If this hypothetical person was Chinese, born in China, and lived in China, then he is Chinese in terms of nationality, with ancestors who lived in Russia, but neither of those are his race.

  • marc

    My suggestion is to pick a few areas in China for a democracy zone experiment: Shenzhen can model HK’s political laws, legislature and multi-party elections, while Zhuhai can model Macau’s, Xiamen can model Taipe’s/Taiwan’s and Dalian can model Seoul’s/ROK’s. The media (including press, TV and Internet) in these cities can also be fully liberalised to model their respective counterparts. But these are a handful of coastal areas only. A bolder experiment would be to have multi-candidate mayoral elections in every provincial capital in China including Lhasa and Xinjiang or even multi-faction or multi-party elections for provincial assemblies.

  • fsfsdf

    How about fuck all of you white supremacist pieces of shit trying to expand and continue your western imperialist white supremacism and American imperialism by attacking East Asia. China won’t be as easy to occupy as Japan or South Korea or Taiwan, you white birdshit fucks

    • Paul Schoe

      Dear fsfsdf, having a good time?

  • Tom J. Cassidy

    Bear in mind that no one-party state survives the ten years after hosting an Olympics as the residents of Berlin, Moscow and Sarajevo will attest.

    Let’s just hope the powers-that-be in Beijing make it a smooth regime change.

  • Myra Esoteric

    Yeah, this is a real concern and no, it’s not about “blaming the white man”. I’ve heard not only Chinese but also Indians and Africans sometimes say this and as an Overseas Chinese sometimes I worry about it too.

    The thing is that it’s not a “white versus people of color” issue, but that functional democracy tends to be a Northwest European phenomenon. Some ‘white’ ethnicities also face this worry, for example Russians.

    Let’s face it different cultures have very different histories and this has a long-term effect. I have a strong feeling that certain kinds of democratic government is correlated with British history and the way they did things historically, not in terms of kings but in terms of how they ran stuff like social welfare, churches and labor unions. Specifically in terms of altruism toward non-kin.

    I don’t think Americans or Western readers should demonize “non democratic” governance styles. As long as people generally like it within the society where it functions, then it’s fine. These statements like “regime change” and “no one party state survives” are misguided and intolerant. You know some European countries have constitutional monarchy and they are doing okay, not everyone has to be the same as the US.

    If it happens, it happens but if it does not happen then people shouldn’t try to force it.