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Who Still Thinks China Isn't Compatible With Democracy?

Despite the existence of democratic Taiwan, some intellectuals continue to question China's ethnic and cultural suitability for constitutional government.


Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeo campaigning for president in January 2012. (Wally Santana/AP)

Jailed Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo once said in a 1988 interview:

In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would take 300 years of colonialism for it to be able to transform into how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough.

Liu also said,

Why could Confucian thoughts govern China for so many years and still persist to this day? I have no answer. I've said it before, this may have to do with (the Chinese) race.

These controversial quotes, which imply that the Chinese are racially inferior -- or at least, less disposed to certain types of governance -- may not accurately reflect Liu's current views, but it does reflect a visceral worry among China's intellectuals. Yet how does this fear factor into debate about constitutionalism and democracy today?

Guo Shiyou, a professor of history at Tongji University, believes that race plays no role in political development. In his article for last month'sYanhuang Chunqiu, a political magazine, he discusses the historical background of, and debate about, "constitutional government." Professor Guo believes that Taiwan's implementation of a constitutional government shows that race is not an obstacle to Mainland China's political future:

Taiwan's constitutional (experience) not only has value for Taiwan; it also shows that the Chinese people can execute democratic politics through their own efforts; [China] does not need to follow Hong Kong's example and 'borrow the womb for bearing a baby.'

The Democracy Report

Zhao Xiao, a professor of economics at the University of Science and Technology Beijing and an outspoken Christian, also argued against the idea that democracy was an American ideal to which Chinese should not aspire. On Sina Weibo, Zhao wrote:

If you speak of constitutionalism or democracy, people may accuse you of being "a fan of America" ... and accuse you of being part of an American conspiracy. Actually, Americans who wish for China to take the path of constitutionalism and democracy all love China ... In contrast, only white supremacists and racists do not want China to take the path of America, they say that the Chinese people don't deserve it.

Some scholars, while promoting constitutionalism, warned against a blind pursuit of political reforms. He Weifang, a lawyer and a strong advocate for constitutionalism, cautioned against the dangerous rhetoric of democracy. He justified his recent reposting of an article he wrote in 2001, The Clever Uses of a Ballot Box:

The current argument over constitutionalism gives people the feeling that "the age of constitutionalism" is finally coming. We have to reflect deeply and thoroughly on democratic and constitutional values again, in order to decrease futile efforts.

In his post, He noted that violence was committed during the Cultural Revolution in the name of democracy. Some Weibo users have already tapped into this problematic rhetoric reminiscent of the slogans from the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Renhan (@张仁瀚), a member of Guangzhou City's Baiyun government think tank, wrote:

Opposing constitutionalism is opposing humanity -- anyone who continues to oppose constitutionalism and rob society by using state power stolen (from the people) will be eliminated eventually by this country's people.

Regardless of the underlying merits of constitutionalism in China, as a political matter, constitutionalism and strong rule of law are nowhere in sight as long as the Party remains in charge. Beijing entrepreneur and constitutionalism enthusiast Moju (@墨鉅) argued that Taiwanese ruler Chiang Ching-kuo's clout proved essential for ending authoritarian rule in Taiwan. While China's Deng Xiaoping could have done the same, Deng is no longer here to make that call. Moju believes that any Party member who advocates for political reform nowadays will be charged with "corruption."

Still, chatter online show strong support for constitutionalism, and a Chinese path to it that does not involve colonialism. Liu Suli, the owner of the independent Wansheng Bookstore, posted on the unequal execution of clauses in the current constitution:

When people mention that "China's constitution and law sufficiently protect their citizen's freedom of speech and association," it has not upheld the promise of execution. Yet (clauses like) "China punishes the people who encourage separatism and subverts the nation's sovereignty and destroys social stability" ... has been executed without slack.

Given the very real dangers surrounding political reform, scholars and intellectuals are calling for caution even as they call for change.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.