Provincialism and democracy

Everyone is talking about the protests in Hong Kong, for good reason. What I find most interesting is the official response. (All links via Simon’s World, the one-stop shop for China stuff.) Xinhua’s take was almost comical, pointing out that bus routes were disrupted and giving no idea what the protests were actually about. Much more interestingly, Donald Tsang, the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive seems to be making noises about democracy.

“I am 60 years of age. I certainly want to see universal suffrage taking place in Hong Kong in my time,” Mr Tsang said.

I find his remarks interesting because I wonder what they say about center-local relationships and the relationship of democracy to power in China. He could of course just be throwing a sop to the protesters, but it is more interesting to wonder if he is telling the truth, that is that he wants an expansion of democracy. As is pretty well-known, the Chinese central government has been claiming that China will eventually become democratic, and elections, if often problematic ones, are held at the local level. The central government likes this because it makes it harder for low-level party bureaucrats to entrench themselves in power and it helps to re-constitute order in a place At the very least they favor a bit of democracy for instrumental reasons.

On local democracy in China see Susan Ogden Inklings of Democracy in China

More interestingly, I assume at some point these local leaders are going to take advantage of the greater legitimacy democratic elections give them to defy the center. That is basically what happened in 1911, provincial assemblies that claimed to “represent” “the people” (it’s really complicated) took their provinces out of the empire. The provincial assemblies had considerably more legitimacy and influence than the central government, and for that reason, among others, the revolution was relatively quick and bloodless.

That the center and the provinces bicker a lot today is not news, although it takes a serious Zhongnanhai-ologist to know what is actually going on. Adding democracy into the mix seems to be almost inevitable, and very bad for the center. Eventually Hong Kong will have its first freely elected Executive, and this will potentially give him a lot of power in relation to the Beijing. I think that is why the center is so nervous about this. If you look at the structure they are talking about it seems that even a freely elected Executive would be pretty constrained in a formal sense. Hong Kongers seem to generally buy the government line that order and national power are more important than individual liberties, and my guess is that anyone who was elected would be pretty agreeable to much of what Beijing wants. Hong Kong is not France, or even the U.S. Still, once you let democracy jump to the provincial level its hard to see how it can be contained, other than by more democracy. I think the most encouraging thing about the demonstration is that Beijing really is afraid, and they have good reason to be.


  1. The Japan case might be instructive, though. Meiji Japan went though an interesting staged democratization which was both forced by pressures from below (and outside) and structured by the oligarchic powers to be as unthreatening as possible. Starting with local assemblies in the 1870s, which were more advisory than legislative, and culminating in the Constitution of 1889 which was intended to create a token Diet but instead forced the oligarchs to engage with political party structures and become considerably more responsive to the people. BUT, that responsiveness was always paired with active efforts to bind the will of the people more closely to the will of the government, and “democracy” was eventually discredited due to corruption and emergency.

    I don’t know how the parallels might play out, but if the Communist authorities are smart they will be looking for ways to democratize which are nonetheless undemocratic….

  2. Jonathan,

    I think the Meiji/Prussian approach was what the New Policies reformers in China were aiming for in the last decade of the Qing. Democracy was good (although I doubt they could have given a clear explanation of why) but it had to be controlled. By growing it up from the bottom it could be kept under control.

    The problem that the Qing faced was that they let the process of reform (very popular with the elite) get out of hand. It was the local elites who were successfully remaking China in the last years of the Qing, and they eventually saw the court as useless and then a hindrance. Liang Qichao makes a good bellwether for this.

    I guess my real question is if Beijing today is facing the same problem, or if they think they are. To some extent they are clearly not. Beijing is not irrelevant to the process of changing China in the same way the Qing court was, whatever people in Shenzhen might think. There has also not, as yet, been a big event like the Sichuan railway case in the Late Qing to show the uselessness of the center. Recent events in Harbin might have that effect (the Tangshan earthquake did it for the post-Mao governments.) I suspect that Donald Tsang has a better feel than I do for the current state of center/provincial relationships in China, and if he is edging towards the protestors it means something.

  3. I do not often have the opportunity to debate China and its politics with other Chinese in Australia.

    This may sound surprising given that I am married to a Chinese woman, am aquainted with many Chinese, and often have dinner with various Chinese born Australians.

    Oddly, I have reluctantly concluded that I have a greater interest in China’s history and its current politics than most Chinese that I come in contact with. This is a shame given the richness of the cultural and political landscape that is China.

    I find that even my very own wife lacks any genuine interest in discussing the increasing prominence of China’s actions on the world stage, and what its internal struggle for democracy means for those living in China. She is more interested in events that may impact her directly, such as the value of the yuan or the performance of the Chinese stock market.

    There are however a few people I know who do have very interesting views on China, and who are not afraid to express themselves. These people have grown up in China, and so their views are of paticular interest to me.

    Having said that I should state from the outset that not only am I an unabashed Sinophile, but that I also appreciate the difficulties that the Chinese government must deal with in order to keep such a large and diverse nation together.

    Unlike many of my highly educated colleagues at my work, I do not take the view that democracy above all is the most important goal of a nation. Quality of life must come first, and it is here that I think the cautious but ultimately benelovent approach of the Chinese government shines through.

    Make no mistake, I realise that the government has made many serious mistakes and that poverty and corruption is rampant in China, but I am speaking in relative and pragmatic terms, not in ideal terms.

    What has really caught me by surprise however has been the general agreement on this point from those least expected.

    Why is this so surpising you ask?

    Well, these very same Chinese that I refer to were the same Chinese who as students in Australia in the late 1980s effectively defected from China after the Tianemen Square protests. These people had a rabid resentment for the oppressive Chinese government at the time, so much so that they permanently left China as a result.

    These same people now praise the current Chinese government and defend its actions.

    Surprising yes, but not remarkable given the changes in China over the last 20 years.

    Overall, I think that the general political apathy of most Chinese Australians, and the otherwise supportive attitude towards the Chinese government’s iron hold of the vestiges of political power, says a lot about the Chinese, their aspirations, values and their hopes.

    It seems that at least for Chinese Australians, health, wealth and happiness is the ultimate goal of life, and although political freedom is a nice to have for most people, it plays little role in the thinking of most Chinese.

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