Democracy and Federalism in Greater China

In the past decade, federalism has become popular as a way to make sense of the evolving relationship among the legal systems of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, and even to describe the internal dynamics of the PRC’s decentralization of lawmaking authority since the early 1980s. What lurks behind almost all of the various uses of the concept of federalism in this ‘‘greater China’’ region, which for certain purposes includes Singapore (whose government is largely comprised of ethnic Chinese, even though its population is not) is one or another assumption about the relationship of democracy to federalism.

The assumptions are not explicitly articulated, but they seem to strike out in a variety of directions. In Taiwan, the two ideas, democracy and federalism, have become opposed to one another; the one-country, two-systems framework is viewed as a straightjacket that inhibits Taiwan’s autonomy. In a similar way, though perhaps less ubiquitously, Hong Kong residents juxtapose one-country, two-systems with Hong Kong’s autonomy, and therefore portray federalism as diminishing Hong Kong’s ability to remain a democracy or to become more democratic. By contrast, PRC scholars critical of the PRC’s leadership depict democracy as either not far behind the transition to, or a precondition for, a federal structure.

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