It’s True That Democracy in China Is in Retreat, But Don’t Give up on It Now

China’s popularity in the world is plummeting, and antagonism between China and the United States is growing. Many blame China for allowing a series of new viruses to emerge, for failing to stop COVID-19 when it first appeared, and for not sharing information about it with the rest of the world in time to prevent it from spreading. People say China seeks to use its strong economic power to dominate the world, and that as it extends its influence it promotes authoritarianism, denying to others the freedom and democracy it also denies its own people.

These concerns have led policymakers in some Western countries to call for the end of engagement. When Deng Xiaoping launched his “reform and opening” policy over 40 years ago, he received strong support from the U.S. government and business community on the expectation that as China grew richer it would liberalize its politics and become a supporter of the U.S.-led world order. But China’s policies changed in the opposite direction: its extension of military muscle into the South China Sea, economic and political expansion through the Belt and Road Initiative, persistence in unfair trade practices with the United States, and theft and forced transfer of American and European technology have convinced many countries that China’s government misled them. We seem to be on the brink of an ideological confrontation—a new cold war that would bring disaster to China, the United States, and the world.

It does not have to be this way. I have been promoting democratic change in China since 1998. That year, I persuaded officials in Buyun, a township in Sichuan province, to hold the People’s Republic of China’s first direct election of a local government leader above the village level, conducted debates village by village, and finally more than 6,000 voters in the town cast ballots. In 2005, in Wenling city, Zhejiang province, I helped the local government conduct China’s first budget transparency and participation reform, in which the government allowed local citizens to review and comment on its spending plans. Over the years, I have helped farmers, lawyers, and civil society leaders to run as independent candidates in local elections. I have advised individuals and NGOs about how to protect their rights under Chinese law, promoted the value of democratic reform and rule of law in academic meetings, and worked with journalists reporting on bureaucratic resistance to reform attempts.

As a political reformer, I was as optimistic. Forward-looking Chinese have aspired to modernization for some 200 years. In the 1970s, that hope reemerged, the government had adopted a stance of reform and openness to the world, and the local officials with whom I interacted were convinced that they should work with local citizens rather than over their heads or behind their backs to make progress in their communities. I was inspired by them, and believed that China was close to a democratic breakthrough.

It is true that democracy in China today is in retreat. A decade ago—even before Xi Jinping came to power—the ruling Chinese Communist Party began to worry about the threat to its power from civil society and political reformers. The Party reversed the more liberal, tolerant policies of reform of the Deng Xiaoping era and reverted to some of the methods of Mao’s regime. They arrested and detained many civil society leaders and independent candidates, cracked down on strikes and demonstrations, blocked international NGOs’ activities, closed independent Christian churches, censored ideas on websites and in newspapers, and even restricted what was taught in university classes. China became a police state, in silence everywhere, its government fearful of its own people.

Yet even now, civil society is quietly growing. I continue to see people criticizing the government and promoting ideas of democracy, rule of law, and freedom on websites and social media. I have observed growing membership in house churches. Citizens are organizing at the local level and engaging in a wider range of activities. Farmers are organizing to protect their rights. Even more remarkable, environmental NGOs are still working to supervise conditions in their localities. Civic groups are still very active working at the community level. Some local governments are still conducting good governance reform, such as the participatory budgeting reforms that are taking place in many cities in southern China including Wenling, Haikou, Nanchang, and Fuzhou. People dubbed “democratic consultants” are busy helping government officials improve their relations with residents in many places around China, using lessons from reforms undertaken in Wenling. Local officials seek such advice because they understand good governance reform and greater public participation reduce tension and build trust between themselves and the people they govern.

In 2004, I was invited by the Canadian government to attend an international conference about China. When I finished my speech about China’s political reform, a member of the audience raised his hand and said, “I visited China many times. I found that your government officials are very rough in the way they treat their people. How do you think that can be changed?” My answer was, “During the direct elections for local government chiefs that I have observed in some places, candidates’ behaviors have changed. They can walk among the crowds of people, shake hands with them, kiss their children, say thank you to the people. Elections changed their behavior.”

China’s trajectory so far has confirmed the predictions of modernization theory that underlay the policy of engagement: as China became wealthier, its citizens became more educated, more urbanized, and more sophisticated. They felt more qualified to evaluate their government, took a greater interest in politics, and demanded that government protect their personal rights and interests.

China lacks a tradition of democracy, but during four decades of reform, relative openness, and foreign engagement, Chinese people learned about freedom, rule of law, human rights, and civil society. In some places, they found ways to practice democracy and freedom. They tasted the forbidden fruits, and learned that democracy is better than tyranny. No one can stop them from hoping for freedom and democracy; they believe that democracy can make China change for the better.

I know it looks to many that the critics of engagement are right. Modernization has not yet produced the outcome it was supposed to produce. The same economic growth that has given people a better life has also augmented the central government’s power. Despite that, China’s current retreat is not a result of the failure of the policy of engagement, but rather, a response to internal developments within China. In the earlier stages of post-Mao reform, economic and political reform were linked. Deng Xiaoping not only paid attention to economic reform, but promoted term limits and retirement ages for officials—important reforms in a system where high officials served at the will of the leader and often to the ends of their lives. Deng encouraged other reformers like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang to loosen Party control over universities, media, state enterprises, and private enterprises.

All these reforms faced opposition within the Party, but as long as Deng was alive and active they made halting progress. However, after the tragic 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, Party conservatives gained the upper hand. Deng became ill, and except for one final intervention in 1992 to push economic reform, he faded from the scene and passed away in 1997. Since then, vested interests in the Party and in the state capitalist class have been able gradually to block further political liberalization.

This does not mean the engagement policy for China was wrong. It means that modernization is facing its final stage. I believe China has reached the last mile to change. The current retrenchment faces challenges that will sooner or later bring it to an end. Tyranny will stifle the economy—already slowing and made much worse by the pandemic—companies will close, employees will be laid off. China’s long period of rapid economic growth will pass into history. It now looks like China will close the door to the West. But Chinese people will remember the good time of reform and openness, when life was better. They will want a return to the time when reform aimed at democracy.

We are all living on the same earth, and share the same environment; we must have freedom as well as prosperity. Chinese people have made great efforts for 200 years to modernize their country. We have achieved many goals, such as industrialization, urbanization, and the spread of modern knowledge everywhere. The remaining goal is political modernization—the most difficult one.

The ideas of rule of law, civil society, freedom, and democracy have been deeply planted in the hearts of Chinese people. As I see it, engagement is right, the Chinese people need it. Interaction with governments, international organizations, civil society organizations, scholars, and media has had a deep effect. And it should be allowed to continue to deepen. I believe only democracy can make China change.