It somehow always feels in season to ponder when the Chinese Communist Party will have to grapple with a real challenge to its rule, and to cogitate over whether democratic governance is in China’s future. In Democracy in China: The Coming Crisis, Jiwei Ci, a philosophy professor at the University of Hong Kong, constructs an elaborate but cogent argument about how the CCP will only overcome its illegitimacy, along with other tears in the national fabric, by choosing to usher in political democracy, a change that Ci declares is “of dire necessity rather than moral luxury.”
Unlike those who predicate China’s embrace of democracy on the fall of the party, Ci envisions that as the party continues to confront crises involving its legitimacy and strains to “perform well” for its population, top leaders will wisely seek out a parachute to stave off the party’s annihilation. The party would still be indispensable, its eventual sharing of power and influence being essential to not only its own survival but to the health of Chinese society.
Ci argues that China, largely due to advancements made since the early 1990s, is already democratic in the sense that the society already possesses “equality of conditions”. That term, taken from Alexis de Tocqueville, entails a “basic human sameness… captured in such notions as universal human rights, careers open to talents, and equality of opportunity.” Again borrowing from de Tocqueville, Ci notes how democracy is a social condition—part of a society’s “nature and dynamic”—more than a political phenomenon or “regime type.” As Ci puts it:
the question is not whether China will be ready for democracy, as if democracy were something totally new and alien, but whether China will be able to complete a process that is already well under way—a comprehensive transformation for which only the last, political steps are yet to be taken.
To be clear, Ci doesn’t think China is near the brink of transitioning to political democracy. But he figures that within the next ten to twenty years—depending on when President Xi Jinping leaves the stage—the party will face an unprecedented crisis of political authority and legitimacy, unable to draw on the two main factors that have allowed the one-party apparatus to largely resist challenge—its communist revolutionary past and its capacity to help boost the “quality of life” of Chinese people. Ci sees Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, as a catalyst for “preparing” the country to undertake democracy in its political system. The real process of democratization would only manifest after Xi is out of power, and only when leaders who follow him can assure that the party has laid the proper foundation.
Ci expounds on a number of problems that should move the party away from the status quo that it tries so intensely to preserve. Evidence of the party’s illegitimacy—undermining its “right to rule”, according to Ci—includes the huge outlay of resources it devotes to try to maintain stability, aimed especially to avoid another mass movement like that of the spring of 1989. The party’s role as the lone power player in the country’s politics is infected with warning signs of weakness—massive corruption, social decay, environmental woes, tightening media controls, and an intensification of propaganda reminiscent of Mao’s era. Ci observes that China’s lack of democratic institutions, which other nations have in abundance, threatens to turn the country into a capitalist morass that has even far more problems than neoliberal capitalism in the West.
As Ci sees it, the party is holding power in place only with extraordinary force that, once gone, will be impossible for future leadership to replicate. Xi, president-for-life if he so chooses, has only been able to extract interparty loyalty through large-scale discipline of officials in his anti-corruption campaign. Meanwhile, the state relies on the world’s most extensive surveillance system to monitor its people, levying in Ci’s words, “an incalculable psychological cost in the form of resentment and fear and the sense of impotence cumulatively burned into the national psyche.” Ci predicts that the party’s political effectiveness won’t endure once Xi is off the scene, as the future leadership won’t be able to either command as much authority as the present one nor provoke as much fear, two elements that have been instrumental in maintaining one-party rule.
China observers might be forgiven their cynicism when consuming a few of Ci’s core ideas, like the need for the party to save itself by giving up political and “moral” ground—an act of compromise impossible to imagine today. Still, looking far into the future, such major shifts are plausible, even likely. For instance, Ci’s vision of the party allowing civil society institutions to shoulder a role in building China’s moral character is not far-fetched; such institutions, and the human impulses and popular ethics underpinning them, are not just going to fade away, no matter how much they are being suppressed at the moment. Nor is it outrageous, as Ci believes, that the people and the party—the country’s one constant, unifying entity—are to sink and swim together. Ci writes:
The only prudent way of accomplishing orderly and effective democratic change is to try as much as possible to work with the CCP rather than against it. Unless the populace adopts this prudent approach, the party will be discouraged from developing a reasonably positive disposition toward democracy.
Some readers will be displeased at Ci’s similarly realpolitik take on Hong Kong. He notes that “one country, two systems” has not worked out as advertised, but that in any case, a full merger of Hong Kong with the mainland is inevitable, and the territory’s residents best set aside hopes for other outcomes. Since China can bide its time, he says, CCP leaders are unlikely to be provoked by resistance, knowing that a clampdown against the loudest anti-Beijing voices in the territory would only be proof of the party’s illegitimacy and jeopardize prospects for an agreeable, peaceful integration of Hong Kong with the rest of China come 2047.
Ci’s style is flowing and accessible, his writing textured with enough colloquial flourishes to engage readers who do not share his academic discipline or ideological approach, and who might wish he would move along quicker instead of lingering in the tall weeds of political and economic philosophy. The book risks turning tediously methodical, but Ci is able to achieve a dramatic pace that conveys his own sense of exhilaration. There are parts that read like a classic tale in which China is a wounded, ailing animal—stricken with social, political, legal, and economic ills—but with the potential to gather up its ravaged body and rise anew.
The book seems to have gone to print before the protests in Hong Kong began in the summer of 2019—Ci doesn’t mention this movement but references Occupy Central from 2014-15—and the deadly coronavirus, which has presented Xi Jinping with the biggest test of his presidency, was not yet snaking its way from China to the rest of the world. Facing that public health emergency, the government’s initial performance was distressing in a familiar way: authorities bungled the early stages of response, picking from its worn playbook of subterfuge, face-saving, suppression, and propaganda. Democracy in China: The Coming Crisis thus has arrived at a most vulnerable juncture for the CCP. Not since the founding of the people’s republic has the party needed to so badly, and in front of the international community, deliver on its self-imposed duty to “serve the people” and work to address issues of its “right to rule”.
It’s worth emphasizing that Ci’s work is philosophical at its heart. Despite his many diagnoses, not every line is drawn in bold, not every circle fully filled. Ci doesn’t talk much about explicit steps that Chinese leaders should take to bring about political democracy—in other words, what the mechanics of transition might look like. Nor does he define specific roles in democracy-building for China’s citizens: “Exercise your personal agency” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Let a hundred flowers bloom”. Ci doesn’t assume that democracy in China will even involve popular elections—he reasons that credibility can come about in other ways—but he also doesn’t suggest another means to forge a representative government that is responsive to popular will.
Ci deeply wants China’s people to prosper under a political structure that respects personal freedoms. His theory about a coming democratic experiment is as emotionally hopeful as it is politically prescriptive—hopeful that Chinese leaders will, before it’s too late, accept that democracy is indeed the worst form of government except all others, and that the party’s next step can truly be a great leap forward.