09 January 2018

On Chinese democracy

Chinese rural reconstruction activists, 1935
including James Yen (front, 2nd from right) and Liang Shuming (front, far left)

And no, I’m not talking about the Guns N’ Roses album.

As long as I’ve been on this blog, I have been a bit hard – okay, very hard – on the advocates for greater degrees of procedural democracy in China. My approach has indeed ranged from the sympathetic to the polemical and violently denunciatory, but my basic scepticism of democratic ideology in China has remained fairly constant. There are good reasons for this. Even if you are more sympathetic to a pro-democratic orientation for China, which most Americans and Western expats indeed are, it is worth remembering that both the history and the present state of democracy in China come with a great deal of irony attached.

Anachronistic attempts to read back proto-democratic values into Chinese social thought and historical figures (particularly Mencius) aside, any serious consideration of the question of democracy in China goes back no further than the work of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao in attempting to reform the Qing Dynasty along constitutional lines. This is an attempt – as readers know – that I am highly sympathetic to, but it is worth noting that Kang Youwei himself baulked at the idea of a republican, revolutionary China and ended his life as a Qing loyalist. The irony should not be lost, gentle readers, that the very same man who introduced the idea of democracy to China himself ended up rejecting it as a political solution to China’s problems. But Kang Youwei was not just one man. And in fact, his ambivalence toward the idea of democratic rule and representative government is typical of the way in which those Chinese reformers who have done the most to advance democracy have approached it. For example, one of Kang Youwei’s devoted followers, Liang Juchuan (father of Liang Shuming), who stood foursquare behind every reform and innovation that could bring self-rule and modern learning to the Chinese people, eventually martyred himself for the memory of the older, humane traditions of the old society.

When Sun Yat-sen came up with his ‘Three Principles of the People’ (one of which was minzhu, or ‘democracy’), he himself acknowledged that certain hard barriers existed which would prevent democracy from taking root in China. Illiteracy was the biggest barrier, and with illiteracy came a lack of political consciousness. Though a number of government figures talked about raising the literacy rate, the man who formulated the most successful plan for mass education was YC James Yen. James Yen was a democrat and a socialist, according to those who knew him well. But even though his work did involve ‘self-rule’ (by which he meant a kind of direct, participatory democracy at the county level), he emphatically eschewed party politics and avoided a too-close relationship with the ruling Guomindang. He was sceptical, even pessimistic, about the ability that democratic politics on a larger scale could have on the ‘rice-roots’, as Pearl Buck called it. Yen believed that political democracy alone would not fix China’s problems: the evils of poverty, ignorance and illness needed to be addressed simultaneously with strenuous grassroots efforts in coöperatives, technological improvements, mass education and public health. And even when it came to democratic politics, Yen advocated for peasants wresting control over their local xian governments away from the bullies and hirelings who often occupied those offices. Party politics and bureaucratic proceduralism were evils best avoided.

Yen’s closest partners in the mass literacy, vocational training and rural reconstruction projects – Liang Shuming and Tao Xingzhi – were even more ambivalent on the subject of procedural democracy than Yen himself was. Liang Shuming in particular was placed in the unenviable position of being a reluctant leader in the China Democratic League, yet one who didn’t even believe in democracy as an ideal. He thought a one-party dictatorship would be necessary for China’s development – but hated to choose between a crude Communist party and a brutal Nationalist one. And Tao Xingzhi himself, an activist disciple of John Dewey and advocate for ‘democratic education’, was still sufficiently neo-Confucian (of the Wang Yangming school) in orientation to urge ‘discipline’ and the need to combat ‘exaggerated democratisation’. He was disgusted in particular by that rarefied understanding of ‘democracy’ that abstracted policy and procedure away from the realities of life for the masses of working poor.

The irony is this: none of the great builders and theorists of democracy in China were democrats tout court, if indeed they could be called democrats at all. And those that professed themselves most ideologically committed to democracy – the followers of Dr Sun in the Guomindang particularly – were all too often the ones that wound up undermining it. Which is what makes it so frustrating attempting to talk about democracy in China today with any level of intelligence.

On the one hand you have the heirs of the old hard left, who are now correctly starting to talk again about the mass line but largely advocating, directly or not, for a praxis of further centralisation and depoliticisation. And on the other hand, you have bourgeois intellectual-yet-idiots like the signatories of Charter 08, neoliberals in œconomics and neocons on foreign affairs, and their equally-bourgeois supporters in the Gangtai and the Haiwai.

The latter talk a good game about ‘rule of law’, about proceduralism, about transparency and human rights – but only ever on the abstract and legalistic level that Tao Xingzhi actively loathed and that James Yen did his level best to avoid. And ultimately, many of the ideological democrats hate, fear and despise the very people whose ‘human rights’ they claim to value. Neither, of course, gets to the heart of the needed third option, though I must confess that my own sympathies lie with the likewise irony-drenched ‘living Maoism’ that occasionally gets closer to the mark that Mao himself missed. The folk memories of the ‘red belt’ of inland China are strong. From my own experience and conversations with folks there, they are not by any means completely misguided or naïve.

So if I have any hope at all for a fair and democratic China, that hope lies in just such deep-red folk memories, and in just such forms of working-class and lower-stratum schoolteacher activism as Yen, Tao and Liang exemplified. I’m not seeing that hope come from elsewhere.

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