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A Neglected Democratic Heritage

Under current Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping, political reform in China is more elusive than ever. Yet there have been times—not that long ago—when China, despite censorship and oppression, was home to open political debate. An intellectual ferment marked the first half of the twentieth century, when the classically trained scholars Kang Youwei (1858–1927), Yan Fu (1854–1921), and Liang Qichao (1873–1929) looked outward to embrace such ideas as constitutional monarchy, republicanism, and democracy. The 1980s saw a new intrepidity of thought when, as Deng Xiaoping began his reforms, figures such as the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi (1936–2012) burst onto the scene. The Chinese people have amassed a considerable treasury of democratic thinking—a heritage that may be buried but is not dead. When recovered, it will be able to serve as an inspiration for generations to come.

Since 1978, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reversed rudders under Deng Xiaoping to swing from Marxist class revolution to economic reforms emphasizing the pragmatism of production, the country has been guided by a succession of leaders who have had to confront the task of reinventing not just their country’s economy, but the very notion of Chinese statecraft. The 1980s were awash with reform-minded sentiment that quickly gave rise to a flood of newly translated foreign books on political philosophy, economics, and politics; a burst of academic freedom; a surprising opening up of the media; and even official experiments with local elections, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hierarchy produced a host of new progressive leaders willing to speak out on the urgency of China’s becoming more open, even democratic.

During these years, Western liberals, reassured by such bromides as “open markets equal open societies,” even came to believe in China’s inevitable progress toward greater democracy. If not pushed too relentlessly by democratic activists and if only more cultural and academic exchanges could be undertaken, went the argument, perhaps China would become . . . well, more like us. After all, was not the CCP on the “wrong side of history,” as President Bill Clinton famously proclaimed to General Secretary Jiang Zemin in an October 1997 joint press conference?1

Such views were the progeny of a dream first embraced by evangelical Christian Western missionaries in the nineteenth century. [End Page 90] Alas, much of this hopeful, if naïve, optimism about China’s ineluctable progress toward democracy ended in the bloody apocalypse of Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and the subsequent crackdown.

Nonetheless, during Jiang Zemin’s time in power (1989–2002) censorship did relax and openness to the outside world did begin to advance again. This allowed a modest recrudescence of optimism about the future of political reform to rekindle both inside and outside China. Indeed, when Xi Jinping became CCP general secretary in 2012, there was a flutter of hope that he, too, would end up being an avatar of at least rudimentary political reform by emphasizing greater rule of law and reliance on the PRC’s own serviceable but nonbinding constitution.

As Xi now starts his second five-year term, however, political reform is more elusive than ever. In fact, he now seems bent on molting China out of its state of ambiguous metamorphosis by proclaiming a new political destiny for his country that is anything but liberal. Xi’s prescription for the future calls for an increasingly autocratic form of statecraft that hybridizes a one-party political system with a carefully managed marketplace enlivened by an infusion of private entrepreneurialism. Having concluded that there is no percentage in putting his increasingly prosperous society at risk of being disrupted by expanding individual rights or democratic due process, Xi has brought China down resolutely on the side of “Leninist capitalism” at home and an increasingly muscular, even bullying, nationalist posture abroad. Whereas it was once possible to imagine that through more “engagement” China’s evolutionary trajectory would eventually make it more convergent with the values and political systems of liberal democracies, that scenario is no longer credible. China and the United States are now like two lines out of parallel destined farther and farther over time to diverge, not converge.

With “Xi Jinping Thought” having been written into the CCP’s constitution at the October 2017 Party Congress and a two-term limit on the presidency having been suspended by the National People’s Congress (the PRC’s legislature) in March 2018, Xi has signaled that he no longer views China as being in a state of transition (however protracted) to a more democratic model. Instead, he is marching his country down its own “road to rejuvenation” toward what he has dubbed “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.” In effect, he has declared that his country will henceforth march to its own drummer toward his vaunted “China Dream,” a vision of the future characterized by strong leadership; a reconstituted and well-disciplined Communist Party; a vast new system of electronic surveillance; strict prohibitions against independent political organizations; rigorous controls on academia, the media, culture, and civil society; and even a proactive and well-funded new effort to influence opinion abroad. Once content to [End Page 91] mind China’s internal affairs, Xi now hopes to globally project abroad the virtues of what he has started calling the “China option,” in effect an incipient new China model. This is a significant change in aspiration.

Aborted reform movements have been a leitmotif in modern Chinese history, and what prevented meaningful political reform from even being discussed during the almost three decades of Maoist rule that began in 1949 was the Party’s stubborn resistance to any changes that might undermine its right to rule unilaterally. But when Deng’s reformist agenda became the watchword of the hour in 1978, China entered a three-decades-long transition. His policy of “reforming and opening,” however, failed to clarify in exactly which direction the country would ultimately evolve politcally. Over the last five years, as Xi Jinping has reinvigorated the CCP, centralized power in his own hands, and attenuated public discussion of alternatives (which he disparages as forms of “historical nihilism” abetted by “hostile foreign forces”), this state of ambiguous transition has effectively come to an end. For now, at least, he appears to have put China steadfastly on a self-declared path to authoritarian capitalism or “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

A Treasury of Democratic Thinking

It is true that for the Chinese, democracy was originally a foreign import. Yet its initial reception during the first half of the twentieth century was far from hostile, and over the intervening years the Chinese people have amassed a considerable treasury of democratic thinking. That legacy, as well as the subsequent experience of Chinese governing themselves democratically on Taiwan, has left a deep fund of indigenous democratic theory and practice. Sadly, it is a tradition that the current rulers in Beijing show no willingness to examine or extol, much less use.

Nonetheless, in considering the question of Chinese democracy, it is essential to remember that China’s modern political history did not begin in 1949. In fact, when the last imperial dynasty fell in 1911 and China faced the challenge of a new political beginning, the country came alive with free thinking and political inquiry. Political pioneers concluded that the West’s emphasis on individualism, justice, liberty, rights, checks and balances, and the rule of law was the well-spring of its ability to accumulate so much “wealth and power.”

In their search for reforms that would enable China, too, to overcome its weakness and its sorry status as the “sick man of Asia,” many Chinese turned to Western models, precipitating a period of intense intellectual and political debate. When the classically trained scholars Kang Youwei (1858–1927), Yan Fu (1854–1921), and Liang Qichao (1873–1929) broke with Confucian culture and its insular way to look outward and embrace such ideas as constitutional [End Page 92] monarchy, republicanism, and democracy, traditionalists viewed them as heretics. Yet during the early part of the twentieth century, as younger intellectuals kept searching for new cultural and political answers to their country’s problems, the boundaries of acceptable political thinking and discourse expanded and became supercharged with fresh inquiry, iconoclasm, and intellectual excitement. To read works from that period today is to be reminded that China had a far more vibrant political discussion going on then than it does now.

In criticizing the emperor’s unilateral power, Kang Youwei became one of the first Chinese thinkers of consequence to declare that change was the most basic and dynamic force in history and that China would perish if it did not find a way to break the static embrace of conservative, traditional thinking. Addressing the young Guang Xu emperor in person in 1898, Kang boldly chided the Qing Dynasty for being timid in its reformist ambition:

All the laws and the political and social systems [must] be changed and decided anew, before it can be called a reform. . . . Most of the high ministers are very old and conservative, and they do not understand matters concerning foreign countries. If Your Majesty wishes to rely on them for reform, it will be like climbing a tree to seek for fish.2

Kang’s advocacy of constitutional monarchy challenged China’s millennia-old autocratic system of imperial rule by calling into question the very idea of the “mandate of heaven”—the ancient theory positing that emperors were sanctioned by cosmic forces much as European monarchs were legitimized by the “divine right of kings.” Kang’s clarion call for a new kind of polity was so radically novel in the Chinese context that fellow reformer Liang Qichao wrote that meeting him “was like a cold shower for me. . . . I was both embittered and remorseful, frightened and uncertain.”3

Liang was another classical scholar who had become interested in foreign ideas through his travels to Japan and the United States, where he became convinced that China’s relationship to its citizens was also in need of radical reformulation. It was through free speech, an idea just then being introduced to China, that Liang hoped to foster what he called “an awakened citizenry”4 suited to take part in China’s new republican future.

As it happened, this era also saw the rise of China’s first mass-media outlets, so these new voices could reach a large audience. By the 1920s, about four-hundred new vernacular publications with names such as The New Student, The New Atmosphere, and The New Learning had sprung up to spread the gospel of reform. Liang, an admirer of the American Revolution known to quote with approval Patrick Henry’s demand “give me liberty or give me death,” urged the editors of this new press to advise openly and, if need be, [End Page 93] even to rebuke the state. He wanted to see “as many doctrines of the world as possible . . . brought into China freely” in order to help jolt the country into needed modernization.5

Although Liang, like Kang, wanted to preserve some traditional Confucian ideas and institutions lest China be catastrophically destabilized, his writings were nonetheless explosive. Among those who felt the shock waves was Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), a physician educated in Hawaii and Hong Kong who concluded that nationalism could rescue China from internal disunity and foreign domination. He also spoke of the “growing popularity of the idea of freedom and equality,” claiming that it “cannot be stemmed by any means.”6

While Sun opposed absolutism, it was the “liberty of the nation” rather than individual liberty that he most ardently sought. He favored strong executive leadership and even an interval of “political tutelage” to allow the Chinese people to receive the requisite training in self-government. Sun, who served as provisional president of the first Republic of China for less than two months in 1912, was a democrat. Yet for him, democracy was as much a tool to free China from foreign imperialism and restore Chinese greatness as a goal in its own right.

From Hu Shih to Fang Lizhi

During the first half of the twentieth century, there was perhaps no Chinese intellectual more profoundly influenced by European Enlightenment thought than the U.S.-educated scholar Hu Shih (1891–1962). He venerated Liang Qichao, but also drew inspiration from periods of university study at Cornell and Columbia. To Hu, as Yu-Tang Daniel Lew later wrote, in the United States “there seemed to be nothing which could not be achieved by human intelligence and effort.”7 Hu quickly embraced the idea that freedom, democracy, science, the sanctity of individual rights, and an independent system of law were the foundations of a just and dynamic society.

Unlike Sun, Hu believed that democracy need not wait for social and political conditions to be right. He proclaimed that “the only way to have democracy is to have democracy.”8 Hu understood, of course, that democratization would be a long and arduous process. He simply did not believe that China’s “backwardness” justified delaying it. “All the world’s undertakings grow out of the dreams of one or two men,” he wrote. “The great calamity of the present is that there are no dreamers.”9 Hu steadfastly rejected the idea that totalistic revolution—the kind espoused by admirers of Marx and Lenin—was China’s answer, and as the split over communism grew, a new wave of Marxist revolutionaries enchanted by the siren song of the Bolshevik Revolution pushed aside Hu’s democratic idealism. Yet in his [End Page 94] writings, Hu wrestled at length with almost every problem that China then faced: Could the country ever change? Did it need a total revolution or slow, piecemeal reform? Could its political system be transformed before its refractory culture? How could his own belief in individual rights and democracy find congruence with China’s own traditional bias for a strong state? Was a real synthesis between East and West possible? Could China’s traditional cultural conservatism ever coexist with scientific reasoning? And finally, was communist revolution the only hope for a “new China,” or could a liberal scenario work?

Unlike his more hot-blooded revolutionary colleagues, Hu came down firmly on the side of individual rights, strong constitutional protections, and gradualism. He was no utilitarian seeking the tonic effects of democracy as a borrowed Western remedy for China’s national weakness. Instead, he was deeply imbued with Enlightenment notions about the innate and universal nature of individual rights and had no interest in helping China to “save face” by rouging up what he viewed as the corpse of old culture just to soothe nationalist and traditionalist pride. “We must acknowledge that in a hundred ways we are inferior to others,” he insisted, even “politically, socially, and morally.”10 He counseled imitation of the West without fear. He was among the first Chinese thinkers to take this view, disparaged and rejected by traditionalists then and CCP chiefs now as “wholesale Westernization.”

The intellectual ferment that marked the first half of the twentieth century was the work of thinkers hungry for new ways of looking at themselves and their country. In recent times, only the 1980s can compare with that earlier period in terms of intrepidity of thought when, as Deng began his reforms, the Democracy Wall activist Wei Jingsheng (b. 1950), the essayist (and future Nobel Peace Prize winner) Liu Xiaobo (1955–2017), and the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi (1936–2012) all burst on the scene.

Fang especially was a revelation. His calls for intellectual and political reform fell on the ears of China’s intelligentsia like a peal of thunder, especially when, in the mid-1980s, he attacked Deng for jailing Wei Jingsheng. Fang declared that “backwardness is ubiquitous in China,” and added that “no aspect” of the social and political way of doing things should be held “exempt from the need for reform.”11 In his unflinching judgment, China was far behind the rest of the world and its socialist era had been “a failure.”12

The remedy, Fang told Shanghai students in 1986, would first be “clearing our minds of all Marxist dogma.” The “critical components” missing from Deng’s vaunted modernization program, he contended, were democracy and human rights, “fundamental privileges that people have from birth.”

“Although human rights are universal and concrete, we Chinese lump freedom, equality and brotherhood together with capitalism [End Page 95] and criticize them all in the same terms,” he complained. “Democratization has come to mean something performed by superiors on inferiors—a serious misunderstanding of democracy. Our government does not give us democracy simply by loosening our bonds a bit.” In Fang’s estimation, “freedom by decree is not fit to be called democracy.” He held nothing back, calling for the rule of law and condemning the idea that informing on one’s neighbors could be deemed “a positive virtue.”13

“We need openness, not restrictions,” he told a September 1986 conference on political reform. “Only with freedom of expression can we debate about what is right and reasonable, and thus inform our decisions. The success of China’s reforms depends on democratization.”14

Electrified students soon began passing around hand-copied transcripts of Fang’s speeches, winning him the moniker of “China’s Andrei Sakharov.” Fang even challenged the Party to “address Comrade Mao’s mistakes, which were many.”15 When reprimanded for violating Party principles, he retorted that the Party was for “superstition” and “dictatorship,” adding that “minor adjustments” would do no good.

Statements such as these eventually cost Fang his university post and his Party card, but he was never imprisoned. Under the censorious Xi, however, those who currently might be inclined to speak out in this way understand the harsher penalties and instead stay silent. The price of dissent is far too steep. And with China no longer the “sick man of Asia” in quest of a Western strength potion, democracy has lost what was formerly one of its key selling points.

Yet however defoliated the current public discourse may presently be in China, it is important to recall that this was not always the case. There have been times—and they were not that long ago—when China, despite censorship and oppression, was home to open political debate. This heritage may be buried but it is not dead, and when recovered will be able to serve as an inspiration for generations to come.

Orville Schell

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. His books include Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (coauthored with John Delury, 2013). This article draws from the author’s earlier essay, “China’s Hidden Democratic Legacy,” published in the July–August 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs.


1. William J. Clinton, “The President’s News Conference with President Jiang Zemin of China,” The American Presidency Project, 29 October 1997, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=53468. [End Page 96]

2. John K. Fairbank and Ssu-yü Teng, China’s Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839–1923 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 177–78.

3. Andrew J. Nathan, Chinese Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 47.

4. Hao Chang, Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and Intellectual Transition in China, 1890–1907 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 260.

5. Philip C. Huang, Liang Ch’i–ch’ao and Modern Chinese Liberalism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972), 75, 77.

6. William Theodore de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, comps., Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 783.

7. Yu-Tang Daniel Lew, The Best of Two Worlds: Notes of My Spiritual Pilgrimage (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2008), 188.

8. Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917–1937 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 66 note 77.

9. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance, 67.

10. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance, 169.

11. Orville Schell, Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China’s Leaders (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 36.

12. Schell, Mandate of Heaven, 37.

13. Orville Schell, “Fang Lizhi: China’s Andrei Sakharov,” Atlantic, May 1988, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1988/05/fang-lizhi-chinas-andrei-sakharov/308954.

14. Fang Lizhi, Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture, and Democracy in China, ed. and trans. James H. Williams (New York: Knopf, 1992), 144.

15. Fang Lizhi, Bringing Down the Great Wall, 108. [End Page 97]