“Is Democracy Chinese?”

Why does the New York Review of Books occasionally have great China articles? If I recall correctly they’re all from Ian Johnson, who interviewed CMP fellow Chang Ping about his past and whether or not China is suited to democracy:

Q: So you thought everything was great. You heard about the developments in Beijing and were excited.

A: Yes and I was doing well in school too. When you’re personally successful, you tend to think that things are going well. You’re optimistic. I thought things were going well but in some ways I was an angry youth. There’s no contradiction there. You believe, but you want to improve things. During the 1986 student movement, people like Liu Binyan, Fang Lizhi, and Wang Ruowang criticized the party and Deng Xiaoping. I remember hearing about it on the radio and felt in my heart that they were heroes.

At the time I loved literature. In the 1980s, literature was at a peak. I subscribed to a lot of magazines like Harvest and People’s Literature. I remember reading Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum and thinking, Wow, someone can write like that. I remember vividly that I was sitting outside and was so moved by that story. I didn’t quite understand everything but was influenced by it. Also Yu Hua’s short stories, for example. But you know that at that time I was still a complete believer. The books I wanted to read the most were the original works of Marx and Engels. I wanted to learn German to read them.

[Later] Q: So you’re a pragmatist?

A: Actually, many people think I’m more of an idealist. I still think China needs democracy, that it needs to change. I really oppose several arguments [that are commonly made] about why China can’t have democracy, such as the argument that China is unique—that Chinese people need to wait because their “quality” [a Chinese term, suzhi, that implies everything from educational level to manners] isn’t high enough and other ridiculous things like that. Some people said that democracy wasn’t part of Chinese culture, and then Taiwan became democratic. Then they said that Taiwan was a special case. Now look at Wukan. They had their own elections. People say it’s special, but in fact Wukan is really typically Chinese. It’s a Chinese town but they organized everything. So what argument are you left with? If Wukan can have democracy so can other parts of China.

I’m not saying that China should have western-style democracy. In fact, there’s not a single western model. What do they mean? Germany didn’t copy America and America didn’t copy Britain. The issue isn’t copying. It’s do you or don’t you want democracy? Of course democracy has a lot of problems but it’s a way forward.

Since the 1980s, Chinese have been pragmatic. The question since the Cultural Revolution has been: can it work? This was Deng Xiaoping’s biggest influence on Chinese people. They ask if it’ll work or not. Now China has the world’s second-largest economy and could overtake the US. So in terms of market economics it’s been successful and I support this. What we lack is justice. There is no justice in the current system. It’s a practical issue. We need justice. Democracy is a way to bring justice. This is why democracy is necessary.

The government doesn’t discuss rule of law much anymore. It’s become more and more a hooligan way of ruling. They just arrest people and throw them in jail or mental asylums. So the past decade has seen a hooliganization of the political system. Many of the old virtues are destroyed by this. The virtues of humanism, responsibilities of the government—the bottom line is things are disappearing.

Q: What about the writer Han Han’s recent blogposts arguing that democracy may not be well suited to Chinese people? This seems to echo some of the other critics who say that China isn’t read for democracy.

A: He mentions that people have a “low quality” and that democracy could become a problem because it could lead to violence. This is a view the government has propagated for a long time. It’s like saying you can’t practice swimming until you can swim and you can’t swim because you can’t practice. Also, the arguments aren’t new. Many were made publicly last year, around the time of the centenary of the 1911 revolution.

The rest of the interview is here.

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