Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts In China: “A Peaceful Democratic Transition?”

In China: “A Peaceful Democratic Transition?”


Nothing appears by accident in the Global Times, Beijing’s mass-circulation tabloid owned by the People’s Daily and run by the Communist Party. So I was astonished to read there, in an editorial feature this past March 9, the following sentence:  “The West has never thought that China will have a ‘peaceful democratic transition,” [西方從未想過中國將有’和平的民主過度]. Even a year ago such words would have been grounds for firing or worse. Yet there they were; they had passed through layers of editors and censors, and their meaning was unmistakable.

How to explain them? I think this sentence is one of the now regular but inconspicuous clues scattered in the media as to where China’s new and energetic President Xi Jinping 習近平 (1953-) seeks to take his country.

The article appeared in response to a piece by an American China specialist long known for his highly favorable views of Chinese communism but now suddenly turned pessimistic, foreseeing chaos ahead [David Shambaugh, “The Coming Chinese Crackup, Wall Street Journal, March 6]. The essay seems deeply to have insulted the Chinese authorities.

Why? As the Chinese author sees it, by insisting that the his people cannot rule themselves, but instead require the strong hand of dictatorship, with chaos as the only alternative, the regime’s most reliable American apologists are in fact suggesting that somehow, by nature or culture, the Chinese are simply unfit for or incapable of the sort of peaceful change that in 1994, for instance, saw Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) elected president in previously apartheid South Africa.

“No,” the newspaper is saying: “Americans, please realize that Chinese are not natural slaves and that we can and will change if necessary as many other countries have done.”

An unprecedentedly fierce attack on corruption even at the highest levels has so far been the hallmark of President Xi’s administration: He has put one corrupt official after another behind bars—“tigers” they are called in Chinese, laohu 老虎.  An example is Zhou Yongkang 周永康 (1942-), who among other things, is the controller of the whole national secret police and security apparatus. All have been so long in office as to have seemed permanent fixtures of the regime, having limitless power—and also fortunes, some in the billions of US dollars—at least partly secreted outside China.

Attacking such “tigers” head-on as Xi is doing is an enormous risk. He understands better than anyone that if they should somehow band together, they can easily topple him. Rumor has it that Xi has already survived six assassination attempts.

Nothing, however, unifies these “tigers” except individual greed. They have no ideology; if anything they are rivals. Furthermore, ordinary Chinese people are thrilled to see notorious criminal officials brought down. This writer’s observation is that the general Chinese community has not been so interested in politics since the 1980s, before their dreams of democracy drowned in the blood of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre. That Xi is playing a very dangerous high-stakes game cannot be denied. If it breaks against him and he is deposed, then China will almost certainly face chaos and internal conflict.

Suppose Xi succeeds, however? Some of his statements about rule of law, following the constitution, and so forth suggest that at a minimum he is aiming to make China what the Germans call a Rechtsstaat—not a democracy, but a polity ruled fairly, by laws. That is certainly conceivable.

Like Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-) Xi perhaps also believes that Communism can work if purified. Should he reach the rule of law stage, however, he will discover that is not the case, as Gorbachev did. Without intending to, the last Soviet ruler built the legal and constitutional fire-escape that allowed the Soviet people not to rebuild communism, but rather to file safely out before it collapsed on them. If things break his way, and the rule of the “tigers” is ended, Xi could well do the same for China.

Or even more. Perhaps it is as a signal of the ultimate goal that we should read that phrase, in an official communist newspaper, about China having “a peaceful democratic transition.”  Certainly the words were printed intentionally and chosen to convey some meaning. What else, realistically, could that meaning be?