Better Understanding China – and Ourselves

Protest 3

Teresa Wright looks at the different aspects of political rule and democracy in China.

Humans typically think in dichotomous ways. In politics, we categorize governments as “democratic” or “authoritarian,” “free” or “not free.” China is ruled by an authoritarian regime, and its people are not free. The advanced industrial countries of the West, in contrast, are democratic and free. Yet reality is much more complex. Take, for example, the United States. Is its highest leader, the president, selected via a truly democratic process? How about its Supreme Court? Further, are Americans entirely free from government surveillance and control? Similarly, is China’s government devoid of democratic features, and do its people obediently cower in fear?

The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Instead of dichotomous categories, democracy, authoritarianism, free and “not free” are best seen as concepts occupying opposite ends of a spectrum. Real-world political regimes lie somewhere in between these endpoints; they are never completely authoritarian or democratic, free or not free. Moreover, where a particular government sits on this spectrum changes over time. And, different aspects of political rule may be more or less democratic and/or free, and can become more or less so.

In the U.S., voting rights were extended to previously excluded groups from the early 1800s through the early 1970s, but more recently have been curtailed in some states by restrictive voter ID laws. Meanwhile, although the U.S. House of Representatives is directly elected by constituents in districts with an equal number of residents, in many cases these districts have been drawn by incumbents seeking to maintain their own political advantage. Further, the U.S. President is chosen by the Electoral College, which only indirectly follows the popular vote of the citizenry, and in both 2000 and 2016 chose a president that received fewer popular votes than his opponent.

Similarly, the Chinese government has in some ways become more democratic over time, and has some areas that are more democratic than others. The most important democratic change in the post-Mao era is the initiation of local elections, particularly in rural villages. According to Chinese law, residents of rural villages are to hold direct elections for their local government body, the village committee, and all registered adults in the village are eligible both to vote and to run for office (one does not need to be a member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party). Similarly, residents of urban neighborhoods have the official right to directly nominate and elect their local residents’ committee, and some government bodies at the township and city levels have been allowed to experiment with direct elections. Further, local Communist Party leaders have been made subject to popular review. Thus, despite the Chinese political system’s still authoritarian nature in many respects, parts of it are democratic, and in some notable respects China’s political regime has become more democratic over time. Nonetheless, as with the U.S and all other countries, one cannot assume that a regime will always move in the direction of greater democracy or freedom; regimes (or more accurately, particular aspects of them) often become less democratic and free. Many argue that this has been the case in the U.S. in recent years, and in China under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

Another important facet of “democracy” and “freedom” entails the ability of citizens to collectively engage in protest to express and address their grievances. Those prone to dichotomous thinking might assume that in an authoritarian, unfree country like China, such activities would be harshly repressed, and few would dare to engage in them. In fact, however, there have been tens of thousands of popular protests every year in China for at least the past twenty years, and in most cases, political authorities have not immediately responded with violence or suppression. Indeed, in many instances, officials have tried to satisfy protesters’ demands. Relatedly, popular protest is not clearly illegal in China. Yet here again, one must caution against dichotomous categorizations. For, protests in China are almost never entirely successful or unsuccessful, legal or illegal, violent or peaceful. Instead, protesters typically employ a complex and fluid combination of tactics that change and are changed by the responses of their protest target, encompassing both legal and illegal, violent and peaceful actions. Similarly, protest outcomes almost always are mixed and unfixed. For example, protest leaders often are fired or detained even when protest demands are addressed. Or, the goals of the protestors are achieved in the short term (e.g., an unwanted construction project is halted) only to be revived in the future. Relatedly, protest “success” can mean a variety of things, ranging from specific demands being partially or fully addressed to broader policy change. Similarly, “failure” can span from demands being partially or wholly unaddressed, to threats, harassment, job loss, detention, arrest, beatings, and death—for one or any number of participants.

Although we might find it convenient to view governments and politics in simple dichotomous terms, doing so obscures an accurate understanding of the complex, mixed, and fluid nature of political phenomena. As with all things human, political entities and actions exhibit multiple characteristics simultaneously and are always in flux. The sooner we recognize this reality, the more readily we can engage in productive political dialogue that moves beyond simple notions of “good” and “bad.”


Wright Protest

Teresa Wright, Chair & Professor, Department of Political Science, California State University, Long Beach, US

Her book Handbook of Protest and Resistance in China is out now.

Read the introduction and first chapter free on Elgaronline.

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