Democracy Quote of the Day

“We Communists always oppose a one-party dictatorship, and don’t approve of the Nationalists having a one-party dictatorship. The CCP certainly doesn’t have a program to monopolise government because one party can only rule in its own interests and won’t act according to the Will of the People. Moreover, it goes against democratic politics.” Deng Xiaoping, 16th March 1941

Quoted in David S. G. Goodman Social and Political Change in Revolutionary China: The Taihang Base Area in the War of Resistance to Japan, 1937-1945 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, ML, 2000, p61. Cited as in Deng Xiaoping “Guanyu chengli JinJiYu bianqu linshi canyihui de tiyi” in Balujun zongbu zai Matian Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 1990, p29.


  1. I think one reason why we might find this quote rather extraordinary, especially if we haven’t read a lot of Communist political writings, is that we have certain assumptions about 1) what it might mean to “monopolise government,” 2) who the “People” are and 3) what “democratic politics” means. For Communists, each of these things potentially (being vague can serve its political purposes, especially in propaganda) means something different than what we might assume.

    This kind of confusion has led to a number of historically significant misunderstandings between Communist and non-Communists. It also helps explain why, for example, a graduate with a law degree from Beijing university who taught me Chinese legal language in Beijing in 2000 could, with a completely straight face, claim that the Communist party does not monopolise government (“After all,” she emphasized, “we have a multi-party state.”), would never act against the will of the people (in 1941, she could simple argue, the “People” does not, clearly, include landlords, capitalist running dogs, and traitors), and that China is a democratic country (since no country which does not provide its citizens with both political and economic rights has a right to use that word) that respects freedom of speech (as she put it, to claim that preventing people from speaking out in such a way that could harm the state is restricting freedom speech is no different than to say we lack freedom of speech for arresting people who yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater).

    However, this is only a partial explanation. Differences in definition are not everything. The other thing important in this case, I believe, is context. Deng is speaking during a war when the Communist Party is in a unified front with the Nationalists. Criticism of the Nationalists continued (as in this quote) but was often restrained and the Communists tried to woo many members of the intellectual and economic classes that might have doubts about the intentions and future plans of the party. For this reason, Deng could well have been deliberately equivocating on several words in his quote – in fact using them in the manner a Communist might understand them, but also leaving them open to other interpretations. We shoudl also keep in mind that the quote was aimed at other Communists (I think it was made when proposing the policies to be established in forming the Shanxi-Hebei-Shandong border area.

  2. @KM: Good reminder to keep perspective. I think a lot of people tend to gloss over what the CPC and the population of China are taught in regards to what the party, and what the government of China is. I’m no expert, and I’ve no wish to defend it, but I’m continually amazed at how I have things wrong in my head about it.

    On a related note, here’s another quote by Deng’s predecessor:
    “The only way to settle questions of an ideological nature or controversial issues among the people is by the democratic method, the method of discussion, of criticism, of persuasion and education, and not by the method of coercion or repression.” – Máo Zédōng, February 27, 1957

  3. Nice quote! Here again the context, the historical moment in this case, that this is taken from is absolutely key. This quote is made right smack in the middle of the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Not long after, many of those naive enough to follow Mao’s advice would come to regret it as they were sent off to camps.

    On separate note, I just rediscovered this great paragraph from Orwell’s famous essay on language:

    “MEANINGLESS WORDS. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning(2). Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality’, while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.”

  4. Very far-sighted, but China is not ready. If it had 2 parties and election, the current corrupted party will be gone. The current corruption cannot be fixed with one-party control.

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