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Nothing Inherently Incompatible Between Chinese Culture And Democracy, Analyst Says

A plainclothes policemen tries to stop a journalist from taking photographs outside Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
A plainclothes policemen tries to stop a journalist from taking photographs outside Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
In the two decades since Tiananmen Square, China has changed dramatically. The country has become an economic powerhouse with a rising middle class. But one way it has not changed is politically, as the ruling Communist Party retains a full monopoly on power.

Will China always be this way, as the ruthless suppression of the Tiananmen protest might suggest? Or will the country's rapid economic development one day bring democracy in its wake?

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel put these questions to Stapleton Roy, the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

RFE/RL: Twenty years ago, protesters occupied Tiananmen Square to protest the absolute rule of the Chinese Communist Party and the protest was crushed so absolutely that it has never been repeated. How do you see this event today -- was Tiananmen the beginning and the end of China's democracy movement, or should we understand it another way?

Stapleton Roy:
I would take issue with the characterization of Tiananmen as having dealt a fatal blow to China's democratization movement. Clearly, Tiananmen was a setback for the opening-up process that was taking place in China during the 1980s. But that was not in the form of a coherent democratization movement. It was rather the fact that during the decade of the 1980s two processes were taking place in China.

The first was the unfolding of the reform and openness strategy with major changes taking place in the way that China was managing its domestic economy. And the second was that China was emerging from the very closed society that characterized the Cultural Revolution period. It was beginning to send students in large numbers to Western countries to be educated, travel within China was becoming much more open, and the restrictions on what could be openly debated in China were eased very significantly.

These were really manifestations of the fact that China was becoming a more open place as opposed to a manifestation of China being on the path toward a democratization process. In fact, throughout this period, the Communist Party continued to be a single party ruling China, there were no changes in the external forms to the way the system was operating and that has continued largely to the present time.

But if you compare the political life in China either in 1989 or today with the political life that characterized the period before 1979, you will find that in fact very radical changes had taken place in terms of the relationship between the Chinese people and the Chinese governing system.

Under the previous governing system, the Chinese government controlled every aspect of the daily life of the Chinese, where they could live, where they could work, where they were educated, where they could travel, what they could read, what entertainment was available to them.

By 1989 that process had already begun to erode in very significant ways and if you look at China today you find that Chinese have extensive access to outside sources of information about what is going on in the world, they are able to travel freely, they can get passports quite easily and can leave the country in tens of millions, both for business purposes or for private travel and tourism.

The Chinese government has gotten off the backs of Chinese in every respect with the exception of the ability to organize political movements or organizations that are not approved by the government.

Democracy On Its Way?

RFE/RL: Some scholars believe that economic progress leads to democratic progress, that the creation of a prosperous middle class puts pressure on a regime to share power more broadly. Is there reason to expect we will see this in China?

If we look at Asia to begin with, we find that the authoritarian political systems that used to be widespread in the 1940 and 1950s have in those countries which have been able to sustain rapid economic development for a period of four decades, given way to representative forms of government.

This occurred in South Korea, in Taiwan, it occurred in Thailand, although Thailand illustrates that a democratization process is a fragile thing and that backsliding is possible. And most recently it has occurred in Indonesia.

This has not yet happened in China. But it raises the question of will it happen in China and what time frame, if it were to happen, is it likely to happen within.

Here you would have to make judgments as to when China's rapid economic development process began. Do you date it from 1979 or do you date it from the restoration of the reform and openness policies after Tiananmen that occurred at the 14th Party Congress that occurred in China in the fall of 1992.

If we take 1992 as the beginning point, because that is really the period when China's rapid economic growth and integration into the global trading system took place, then we have only had 20 years of that process and elsewhere in Asia you did not get the type of fundamental political transformations at that early stage.

RFE/RL: China is a civilization that is thousands of years old and it that has been very successful doing things its own way. Some Chinese themselves will say that democracy -- a Western idea -- will not work in China, where social stability, not individualism, is the cultural priority. Is there anything about Chinese values that make them incompatible with democracy?

If we look at what I would call Greater China, namely the area inhabited by Chinese peoples, we find that we have the communist party system still in effect on mainland China, but in Taiwan we have a multiparty democratic system that has been functioning now for well over a decade, we have the mixed system that you have in Hong Kong and Macau, where you have some members of the legislative councils who are freely elected and others who are there through an appointive process.

So, you have several models the Chinese can look at without having to assume a Western model has to be pursued. And the fact that you continue to have a democratic system in Taiwan suggests that there is nothing inherently incompatible with Chinese culture or Chinese history in terms of moving into a more modern form of representative government than what used to pertain in China in the past.

End Of Communism

RFE/RL: One final question. We are used to referring to the Chinese government as the Communist Party, and that is how it refers to itself. But China has moved very far from classical communism today, so far that one has to wonder if the government can still count on this ideology to legitimize its rule.

The communist system as defined in China bears no relationship to the classical Marxism that used to characterize Soviet communism, for example. If you have studied communism, it deals in terms of class struggle. In China, the Communist Party espouses a harmonious society, so that is about as strong an antithesis to the class struggle as you can find.

In my judgment, China still is struggling with the question of finding a legitimization process within the political system that can establish the right of the ruling party in China to rule. At the moment, its legitimization rests on the fact that it is delivering economic development to the Chinese people and this has been sufficient to fend off any major challenges to the right of the Communist Party to continue running the country.

That is one reason why, I think, China responded so quickly to the [current] economic downturn, because if it were to lose the legitimization of rapid economic development, then I think the political problems in China could become much more severe.

Crackdown On Tiananmen Square

Crackdown On Tiananmen Square

June 3rd and 4th mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when the Chinese military violently crushed pro-democracy demonstrations. On June 5th, cameras captured the famous image of the lone citizen who stopped a line of tanks. Video by Reuters. Play

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