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Stability vs. democracy in China
Hu Ping
11/2/2002



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Some people say that todayís China is very stable. But longtime China watchers are asking: Of what nature is this stability? And whose stability is it? Who is this stability advantageous to, and who would this stability harm? The following is the edited transcript of a speech given by the author, Chief Editor of Beijing Spring, at a discussion on China issues held at Columbia University on October 6, 2002.

Stability in China

The concept of stability itself is a question that is worth discussing, and discussing stability in general terms may mislead people's thinking.

First, letís raise a key question: Are all definitions of stability acceptable? Chin Shihhuang (First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty) pursued stability through slaughtering his people, burning the Confucian books, and burying the Confucian scholars alive. He hoped stability in his dynasty would bring a thousandth Emperor or even a ten-thousandth Emperor, which was why he proclaimed himself as the First Emperor of the Qin. However, his idea of stability cannot be accepted by today's people, nor could it be accepted by the people back in his time. Similarly, Pu Yi (the last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty) hoped for stability in Manchukuo, but all patriotic Chinese were not willing to accept his vision of stability. The obvious first question that we should make clear when discussing stability is this: Whose stability is it?

Second, the definition and the significance of stability are not the same in different countries. In China, peacefully demonstrating is considered to lead to turmoil, organizing an opposition party leads to turmoil, and "defying the superiors" is rebellion. But in the United States, not only is demonstrating not considered to lead to turmoil, but it is seen as a basic right and healthy participation in politics. For instance, in the U.S., you could organize an opposition party, and publicly race against the incumbent party. This would not lead to turmoil, and is an organic component of normal order and social stability. So it becomes obvious that judging stability is dependent on the nature of the political system, and the meaning of stability is related to that political system. We cannot neglect to examine first the background of the political system when discussing stability. So, we ask: Do we actually want democratic stability or despotic stability?

Some people say that todayís China is very stable. But letís ask: Of what nature is this stability? And whose stability is it? Who is this stability advantageous to, and who would this stability harm? To answer these questions, let us take a look at what China lists as the unstable factor. In the past, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party listed the "class enemy" as the unstable factor. Now we all know that this was simply an unjust charge and political persecution. But at that time, many among the persecutors really believed those listed were the bad people. So, what about today? Take a look at the people and groups who were portrayed as threatening the stability by the authorities -- they are the worker-peasant masses. To maintain stability is nothing but to crack down on, suppress, and persecute the populace. Nobody thinks they are the bad people. In fact, everybody knows that their requests are right and reasonable. But still these people are suppressed. So, what kind of stability is this? Is such stability just? Viewing it from the conscience angle, such stability is even more unacceptable than that of Mao's time. The stability at Mao's time meant that people participated in the suppression of the people whom they thought were bad. But today's stability means that one still wants to suppress other people, while knowing full well that they are good!

Democracy in China

It is true that some people in the Communist Party also say China wants democracy. But they emphasize that it must be "China-style democracy." So, what on earth is China-style democracy? Deng Xiaoping said that in China-style democracy, there is no separation of powers, no multi-party political system, and no western-style freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, if there is none of these, can that still be called democracy?

Still, some people say that democracy requires certain conditions, such as a market economy and a middle class. It is not so. A market economy is an unnecessary condition for democracy, but in China, developing a market economy requires democracy. This is because the marketization in China is a process accompanied by privatization. If there is no democratic mechanism to supervise and balance this process, it is very easy for those with power and influence to appropriate public property using their authority, which generates corruption. The state-owned property flowing away is already a serious problem, and is the biggest source of corruption. Without democracy, China's economic reform is then the most unfair distribution of wealth. Privatization without democracy cannot lead to legitimacy, and people will not acknowledge the reality of the property redistribution it creates. At present, people do not have the right to speak, and have to helplessly watch those with power and influence robbing the property that belongs to the people and the country, and be satisfied with picking up the few scraps from the luxurious banquet of those with power and influence. But once they have the right to speak, they certainly will investigate and affix responsibility for the matter, and demand those with power and influence to return the property that they have snatched. Those with power and influence fear being held responsible, so they go all out to resist democratization. Therefore, if China keeps going along with its present reform logic, it will not move any closer to democracy, but move further and further away. We could all feel that in 1979, or even just before June 4, 1989, the difficulty to implement democracy in China was relatively small; but today, the risk is bigger for the rulers. Thus, the difficulty becomes bigger, and it will become even bigger in the future.

From another perspective, even if democracy did require certain economic and cultural conditions, this still cannot be the excuse for political persecution. Stopping the persecution in China does not require any conditions, but only the wish of the Beijing authorities. What economic condition does it need to implement freedom of speech? Also, stopping the political persecution should not be acknowledged by so-called "gradual improvement." If a robber used to kill 20 people per month, and now he kills 19, can you say this robber is making progress, and is improving? Can you say this is called "gradual reform" and it should continue slowly? No, you must have him throw away his butcher knife immediately.

Still, some people say that the current situation in China is not good, and thus it is not the time for democracy. It would be better to turn to democracy when the situation becomes better. The problem is, if the situation could really become better, the Chinese Communist Party would then say: Aren't we doing very well? Obviously, we were correct originally to oppose the liberalization, and we have to continue doing it. It is clear that we do not need democracy. Besides, democracy also can bring risks and uncertainty.

* Hu Ping is Editor-in-Chief at "Beijing Spring" magazine.

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