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  • Will China Democratize?Sources of Resistance
  • Thomas A. Metzger (bio)

China today is in a process of economic, intellectual, and political transformation, 1 which includes what Alex Inkeles has called a tendency toward “convergence” between societies committed to modernization. 2 While Inkeles has robustly documented striking similarities between industrial societies in terms of modes of production, organizational traits, education, stratification, and personality traits, he hesitated in his earlier writings to predict that capitalism would replace socialism and that democracy would replace authoritarianism.

Yet at least in China, one can see a major tendency in the direction of “the three marketplaces” (intellectual, economic, and political), a concept that can be derived from the famous work of Karl R. Popper and Friedrich A. Hayek on the nature of the free and prosperous society. 3 Thus China today seems largely to have accepted Hayek’s correlation of economic efficiency with the free economic marketplace. Although China is still far from being an “open society” or even enjoying the “intellectual marketplace” realized in Taiwan during the authoritarian era, its development will increasingly corroborate Karl W. Deutsch’s point that competitiveness in the international arena requires openness to the global flow of information. Even in the case of the political marketplace, the Chinese leadership is growing aware that the efficiency of the state requires the use of elections and the courts to check state abuses.

Moreover, although few Chinese affirm the idea of democracy as [End Page 18] defined by U.S. political scientists, many are inspired by a certain vision of “rule by the people.” To a large extent, twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals have seen history as dominated by a “global trend” (shih-chieh-te ch’ao-liu); have identified the West as presently leading the global parade forming this trend; and today identify “rule by the people” (or min-chu, the Chinese word for “democracy”) as integral to Western success. Very different from the Arab-Muslim world’s much weaker interest in democracy, this widespread Chinese enthusiasm for the democratic ideal is rooted not only in the widely revered May Fourth Movement, which arose by 1919, but also in the Confucian way of defining proper governance. As I have argued, Confucianism is a this-worldly way of thought according to which realization of ultimate values is contingent on fully moral action by the political center; the standard of political morality transcends the current ruler; and the content of political morality is action in accord with “what people regard as beneficial to them.” 4 With this viewpoint, many Confucians since the late nineteenth century have logically, almost instantly, and quite naively perceived Western democratic procedures as infallible means with which to realize their traditional goal of perfect political morality. This tradition-rooted enthusiasm for democracy has remained central to Chinese political discourse, and fuels contemporary Chinese demands for democracy.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful that China will adopt the Western liberal model of democracy any time soon. First, it is important, I think, to look at the problem by using something like Alex Inkeles’s idea of “convergence” and “divergence,” which is based on Weberian empiricism, rather than returning, as Francis Fukuyama has suggested, to the classical belief that global history has a unilinear direction based on universal human impulses that philosophers such as Hegel have identified. Weberian empiricism, in turn, breaks down into at least two approaches, both of which are important—the emphasis on Verstehen, what people have said and meant (including their patterns of public discourse pertaining to the construction of the sovereign political center, not just their informal opinions about how rotten the political situation is); and the emphasis on quantifiable data.

Second, it is obvious that many millions of Chinese have a vested interest in the status quo, and that the political elites favoring the status quo have powerful coercive tools at their disposal.

Third, there is the elusive problem of how to describe the current structure of the Chinese government. I believe there has been a strong tendency to underestimate both its stability and the degree of legitimacy it enjoys. Most misleading has been the common assertion that Maoism and Marxism have become a “joke,” and that the only...

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