Why democracy is not accepted in China

Why democracy is not accepted in China


Even if economic growth in China has lost past momentum recently, GDP per capita in major cities is closing to US$ 20,000 if we believe data provided by the Chinese government. Over a couple of decades, many Westerners have believed that China could democratize after people’s living level increases much. However, it might be difficult to install democracy and legalism into the country where is even eliminating limitation to the presidential appointment term. To be honest, expectations that people can start desiring democracy if they become rich seems as the same idea as that specific share price is likely to rise since technical chart shows a bullish sign. The basic misunderstanding seems to be that people don’t assume that Chinese society has the appropriate reason(s) to reject western style democracy.


In the current world, many countries that are successfully operating democracy system are recognized to have experienced the feudalism after the medieval period. Typical examples are Western Europe and Japan, while some other regions like India seemed had similar systems. Although there is no definite academic validation for that relationship, we can pay interest in the overlapping tendency in these regions. Feudalism provided a trade-off between loyalty and territorial rights among monarchs, lords and their vassals. It was a society with class fixed; however, the system enabled the lower class to approve upper-class power by a contractual relationship based on benefits and duties. It seemed to help to form a foundation for accepting the parliamentary democracy which allows the public to select politicians. The territory and residents were the source of power for feudal lords, thus the territory management would bankrupt if constant harsh reign reduced the population. Unlimited tyranny was difficult to keep, since residents needed to be protected and tamed. Religious ideology is also important. If absolute religious authority was strongly tied to political power, the transition to the democratic system should be difficult. Although secular power may be subject to selectable contract, the religious authority provides a sole option and no alternative can exist.


How was the Chinese society prior to modernity? Until the Eastern Zhou period, the alliance of lords who led paternal line relatives groups formed a nation. However, a centralized bureaucracy system prompted the separation of landowners and political powers following the foundation of Qin Empire. Then, this tendency was spurred after the imperial examinations system was established during Sui and Tang dynasties. Bureaucrats selected by the exam had political powers, but frequent position reassignments didn’t allow them to become feudal lords in a specific region. The source of political power of bureaucrats was positions given by the emperor. Even if their tyranny in allocated regions exhausted residents, officials were unlikely punished as they shared part of the money they had deprived within the bureaucrat society. As a result, political system equivalent to western feudalism was not established in China.


In order to pass the imperial examination which was the entrance gate towards high-level bureaucrats, extensive learning effort was required. Wealthy relatives groups with the economic background like farm management and business had the advantage to withstand such educational investment. Successful exam candidates were appointed as bureaucrats and their huge bribery income accompanying authorization related rights would enable the families’ reinvestment in education. The promotion brought bigger authority and senior officials were able to induce profits to their own hometown relatives freely by utilizing the bureaucrat network. The social class of ‘scholar-official’ was created through that way. However, Chinese bureaucrats were not heredity, so that relatives group had a risk of downfall if they failed to have successful candidates consecutively. Also, war and political fights often ruined them. Generally, it said that each paternal group was only able to prosper for several generations. When a certain family was a downfall, another family secured the seat and started climbing the new stairway of prosperity. The fallen relatives’ group was also able to revive soon once their descendants would pass the imperial exam. This system continued from the 6th century to the beginning of 20th century when the last dynasty collapsed.


In the history of China, although dynasties were replaced every 200 to 300 years by revolution, the framework of the despotic empire with bureaucracy never changed. With this framework, even conquistadors from the different ethnic groups were able to establish new Chinese empire in a short period. While emperor’s family and eunuchs arbitrarily exercised their power from the palace, the practical administration was done by bureaucrats selected by exams. Most of those bureaucrats came from local scholar-officials. A key difference of scholar-officials with feudal lords was that they were always chosen by the examination. Scholar-officials had no territory and residents who should be protected, nor had the contractual relationship with monarchs on benefits and duties. Once they passed the imperial exam, they were appointed as bureaucrats, then aggressively started to receive bribing while transferring places of appointment in order to recover educational investments that their family had been spent. What they should cherish was only their own relatives, and colleagues who are in a cooperative relationship through the bureaucrat network. Residents living in areas of they in charge were merely subjects of exploitation. Therefore, it was not uncommon that public investments were carried out by local wealthy families instead of the regional government. Resources of those investments were that collected from somewhere else by bureaucrats who belonged to such local wealthy family.


In the history, most Chinese bureaucrats received bribes except for some eccentric people. Although there are lots of records about officials who were punished for bribery, they seemed to be results of political struggle or arbitrary judgment by the emperor. The bribing itself was not a root cause. Anti-corruption campaign deployed in modern China is likewise considered a tool of the power struggle. We recognize that bribing as absolute evil, but Chinese people seem not necessarily think so. Why is bribery bad in democratic nations? That is because it distorts impartiality for public services provided for nationals who have sovereignty. On the other hand, the sovereignty of non-democratic countries belongs to dictators. In that case, the problem is that bribery scandal by a particular person generates dissatisfaction in the society and damages the reign of the monarch. People criticize their personality which rises public discontent, not bribery.


The Communist Party of China is promoting anti-corruption campaign as “Corruptions overthrow the country”, but was it a historical fact? In the pre-modern society, there was an upper limit of the population due to productivity restriction. When population level approached the limit, food could not be distributed sufficiently. Regions, where only have officials who kept squeezing, became more and more unbearable as compared to areas where can expect profit induction by bureaucrats who have the family relationship there. When a large revolt occurs, Chinese historical cycle moves to the stage of destruction of the dynasty. Bureaucrats’ corruption itself was not the root cause of the rebellions as corruptions spread at any time regardless of social circumstances and they did not cause a serious problem in peacetime. People started violent actions when the difficulty of distributing products reached the level of survival crisis. In the midst of such turmoil, many of scholar-officials were quietly observing the situation; they resumed attending imperial exams for official positions after the winner of the civil war established a new dynasty. Then, the centralized tyranny structure with bureaucracy was rebuilt immediately. Relatively stable economic recovery was maintained for a while as the population had been adjusted during the war. After the introduction of the imperial exam system, China has not been divided by regional independent powers for a long period as militants kept fighting until the final winner establish a new dynasty following revolt defeated the previous government.


After 1911 revolution defeated the Qing dynasty, the national government led by Chiang Kai-shek integrated China following 10 years civil war among local militants. However, the centralized country administration was unable to carry out, since the government’s intervention into each region where local militants still dominated was limited. Nation-wide exam for recruiting officials did not revive as well. The society of posterity China might have shown different style if the country was divided by local militants completely and established nation-states based on those areas. The Republic of China later democratized as a nation state after being driven into Taiwan following the civil war with communists. Of course, we cannot ignore the impact of the former governance by Japan to democracy in Taiwan. Anyway, the Chinese continent has reunified by the People’s Republic of China and continues to undergo a powerful rule by the communist single-party dictatorship until today. During the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1967, the traditional values and culture of China, including the paternal relatives’ society, were thoroughly destroyed. However, present Chinese society seems to revive traditional structures after 40 years passed since the end of Cultural Revolution.


From the beginning of the reform and opening policy, many communist party members have built up wealth by utilizing their authorities and connections as same as Imperial era officials. Those people are forming a new social class like former scholar-officials. For Chinese people with high education, it is said not so difficult to become a communist party member if their relatives are not engaging democratic activities or other anti-communist party behaviors. Nonetheless, money and connections are essential to be assigned to the good position and aim future senior officials. The Communist Youth League of China which members are nominated from nationwide secondary education sites has been thought as an organization to produce future elites, but their bright future is no longer guaranteed. More positions may be required to secure for wealthy rather than the youth league graduates. Once rich people who received educational investments obtain political authority, they accumulate wealth by bribery as a matter of course and try to reproduce the wealthy class. It is not completely same as the former system as modern bureaucrats are not passing harsh exams, however, the imperial exam also can be recognized as a system that reproduces wealthy as the exam requires learning efforts that cannot be attained absolutely without sufficient economic background.


Those who have survived the severe competition for promotion among well-educated people operate the nation. It seems to be an efficient system. Democracy may seem nonsense, as parliament members elected by the ignorant general public can make inappropriate decisions. Nonetheless, people who have experienced the type of social forms that requires consideration to the public are more willing to choose democracy than despotic systems, even if democracy is often called as mobocracy. Additionally, efficiency does not necessarily lead to optimal solutions. However, Chinese people may not have the same sense, since they have lived in a social environment where provides a higher probability of survival under the law of the jungle to people who elect to rely on own relatives and consider others as objects of exploitation.




Sozen Fujiwara

Research partner、Institute of Economics for Humans

Private investor

Bachelor of Arts, Hiroshima University

Master of Economics, Nihon University

Worked as a reporter for US-based financial media after engaged in futures markets in China and Southeast Asia as a trader. Before that started work experience as a local newspaper reporter.

Immigrated to New Zealand for children’s educational opportunity. Participated in the management of a nutritional product manufacturer that is owned by wife’s family.

Having more than 30 years experience in commodity markets and operating a crude oil market specific blog since 2010: https://ameblo.jp/sozen22/




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