Asia Program

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China's "Third Revolution": A Gateway toward Democracy?

October 26, 2004 // 3:30pm5:30pm
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Even though the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ruled China for more than half a century, it still faces an urgent task of maintaining its governing capability within a changing China. While the Party apparently has no intention to copy the model of Western democracy to China, it is now prepared to practice "intra-party democracy" and adopt some useful governing methods from foreign ruling parties in order to perpetuate the Party's monopoly on political power. As one intellectual declares in Chinese official media, it is time for China to begin the "third revolution"—"democratic reform," following the first revolution prior to 1949 and the second revolution—reform and openness—since 1979.

Why is the Party so eager to enhance its governing capability? Is it driven by the Party's awareness of rampant corruption and social problems in China, or Beijing's reflection on the shocking collapse of former communist regimes in Europe? What will be the role of Chinese NGOs in China's democratic process in the future? Will media marketization help ensure its independence?

At an October 26 seminar hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program, four speakers explored China's prospects for democracy. Two of them, Ogden and Thurston, spoke on the same topic at a Capitol Hill breakfast meeting for congressional staff the following morning.

Ogden argued that the CCP regime has shown little interest in multi-party democracy, but it is unlikely to resist the wave of democratization in the long run. While the party-state may collapse abruptly because of unpredictable events or forces beyond its control, it is more likely that Beijing, with policies made on a rational and cost-benefit basis, will continue to lay the groundwork for gradual, controlled democratization. Such a process is threatening neither to social order nor necessarily to the Party's retention of power.

Thurston highlighted the difficulties of the Chinese regime in governance, considering the huge population, rapid urbanization, high unemployment rate, and increasing gap between rich and poor. These issues, according to Thurston, can be better dealt with by introducing democracy to China. She observed the gradual development of civil society in China, with more local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) run by people themselves.

McCormick discussed media commercialization in China since the early 1990s, with the growth of advertising and new types of newspapers. In addition, the Internet allows the circulation of controversial opinions and material that would be censored in print media. With such development, the traditional system of media control based on journalists' self-discipline is breaking down. On the other hand, the government continues to control the media market, and even jails journalists and some Internet commentators who go beyond the official line.

Greve emphasized political changes in China, including village elections, activities of the NGOs, media marketization, and public evaluation of local cadres. According to her, these changes do not qualify as democratization, because multi-party competition is beyond the vision of the Chinese leadership. Yet, such changes have laid a foundation if China chooses to move toward democracy in the future.
This seminar examined China's prospects for democracy. All speakers agreed that China has made some progress in political reform. However, it remains controversial whether China's "third revolution" will necessarily open a gateway toward democracy.

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