So Can We Write “D3m0cr@cy” Properly Now?

From Martyn…

Premier Wen Jiabao was responsible for the best headline of the day on Monday with “China’s Wen says moving toward dem0cracy” from Reuters:

China, where the Communist Party has enjoyed a monopoly on power since 1949, is moving surely toward dem0cracy, Premier Wen Jiabao said on Monday.

“China will press ahead with its development of dem0cratic politics, that is reconstruction, in an unswerving way, including direct elections,” Wen told a news conference ahead of an EU-China summit.

“If the Chinese people can manage a village, I believe in several years they can manage a township. That would be an evolving system.”

China has introduced direct elections for village chiefs in more than 660,000 villages, and many of those elected are not party members. But it has dragged its feet on expanding suffrage for the election of officials at higher levels.

Wen has in the past defended the delay, saying China is a vast, populous, underdeveloped country and levels of education are inadequate.

Beijing’s limited experience with dem0cracy, observing its effects in the former British colony of Hong Kong, leaves it far from convinced that the system is effective.

The Communist Party fears that if it were to allow full, direct elections in Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, dem0cratic winds would blow toward the mainland and one day the people would vote it out of power, analysts say.

Whenever I read about Chinese officials talking about how China is a “vast, populous and underdeveloped country” and therefore not ready for more political representation (I honestly don’t think that full dem0cracy is realistic) I always think about how the CCP managed to register everyone into a Hukou (household registration) system decades ago and establish a solid method of bureaucratic control over a largely agricultural society.

As many Chinese people have told me before, with the system of literally millions of village and neighbourhood committees established throughout the country, China never needed the Soviet equivalent of the KGB to control the population. Therefore, you’d think that the bureaucracy involved with the representation of townships wouldn’t be out of the government’s grasp.

Nevertheless, despite the excuses, it’s not that the people aren’t ready for local political representation, it’s that the government isn’t ready to allow it.

UPDATE: As Blair leads the EU-China summit in Beijing, the infamous UK tabloid newspaper The Sun has also picked up on Wen’s above d3m0cr@cy speech. Imagethief covers this entertaining report in detail, complete with his own write-up and links.

The Discussion: 28 Comments

Nothing pisses me off more than the “not ready for democracy” canard. I’ve heard it used so many times in Asia, in various incarnations and with various qualifiers. Often the qualifier “Western” is used, meaning multiparty democracy.

Well, if ever a nation wasn’t ready for democracy it was Indonesia, and it seems to be doing fine less than ten years after the vile Suharto was tipped out of office and real, multiparty democracy launched. Messy, sloppy, slightly corrupt, but a vast improvement over what they had before.

No one is ready for democracy until they get it. And we all make a pooch of it one way or another. But it remains the worst system except for everything else, and the system most likely keep government’s interest aligned with the people’s.

September 5, 2005 @ 7:51 pm | Comment


A recent speech by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has left both Asiapundit and Peking Duck wondering if we will soon be able to write the word democracy without the need to use trick letters to get around the firewall.

September 5, 2005 @ 9:21 pm | Comment

“China is a vast, populous and underdeveloped country and therefore not ready for more political representation”, but no one’s stopping 1400 of them adding their cars to Beijing’s streets per diem (100,000 each year!). Add to the sulphur dioxide levels and greenhouse gases and the like, but god help them if you give them any say as to how mismanaged and incompetently-run everything is!

September 5, 2005 @ 11:26 pm | Comment

Good one.

September 6, 2005 @ 12:01 am | Comment

Yes, the “not ready for representation” thing annoys me as well. I wish they (the govt) would just be honest, although I do realise that that might be asking a bit too much of the CCP. Why not just “No, we’re not going to let it happen, so there”. More honest. It’s better than taken for a fool and told that China’s not ready for it.

However, the sad thing is that I’ve heard some non-Chinese people come out with this rubbish as well. Singing it like a mantra.

Do we have any takers on TPD I wonder?

September 6, 2005 @ 12:11 am | Comment

Personally? I think China’s people are a lot more ready for dem0cr@cy than most.

September 6, 2005 @ 12:54 am | Comment

Hu Jintao made a similar speech on 9/5.

From the article

From those who can’t read Chinese, here’s my attempt at a rough translation of the above:

Hu Jintao expressed that the Chinese government recognizes the importance of the rule of law in economic development. He emphasized that for China to have a harmonious socialist society, we must first establish a democratic society with rule of law, develop socialist democracy, increase democratic institutions. China will continue to move forward with democratic elections, democratic monitoring of government, democratic decision making, push for governing by law, and make full use of the important effects of democracy and rule of law in developing and safe guarding a harmonious society.

September 6, 2005 @ 1:08 am | Comment

Dear Hui Mao,

I have a slightly different interpretation of Hu¡’s speech and if you don¡¯t mind, I would like to slightly change your translation.

The clause· 丰富民主形式 will be translated into “to enrich the content and forms of democracies”.

The clause 推动依法行政 will be changed to “to implement the rule of law in government administration”.

The sentence 充分发挥民主法治对于促进和保障社会和谐的重要 will be translated as “to take full advantage of the role of democratic rules of law in promoting and safe guarding social harmony”.

Based on my revised translation, I would like to make a few comments about Hu¡’s speech:
(1) The speech was made in a Legal Conference with an audience of legal professionals from different parts of the world. The theme of the speech is to reassure conference participants of China’s view on the importance of the rule of law.
(2) Democracy will only be relevant and supported in China if it upholds the rule of law.
(3) There are different forms of democracies and socialist democracy is the one that China will uphold. China will make an effort in defining, rather than promoting, democracy.

However, there is one very positive message that comes out of this speech, i.e. the mentioning of “democratic election”. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to further development on this front.

September 6, 2005 @ 3:13 am | Comment

Nice translating you two. Thanks very much for that. Good points all.

As Fat Cat says, “The mentioning of “democratic election”. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to further development on this front.”

I’m just trying to think back to remember how much lip service Hu/Wen have given to “democratic elections” in past speeches.

Trying desperately to take something positive out of this, I think that even the mention of the “d” by such a leader in such terms, word in a step forward. Perhaps a tiny step but a step nonetheless.

September 6, 2005 @ 4:10 am | Comment aka budding sinologist, just made a point over at his site that I had missed: Wen was speaking to a foreign audience.

This is significant and I hang my head in shame at missing such a major point. Thanks Meizhongtai!

On the basis of past speeches, what Chinese leaders say to a foreign audience is way different to words adrerssed to a domestic one. As meizhongtai observes, it will be interesting to see how this speech is reported back in the Chinese press, if at all. I’ve seen such speeches in the Chinese media with the “d” word carefully omitted. I’ll keep my eyes open.

September 6, 2005 @ 4:22 am | Comment

China Moving Toward Democracy, Posh & Becks in Spicy Pudding Row

From the UK tabloid Sun, it’s official: China is moving toward democracy. Looks like we can all relax….

September 6, 2005 @ 4:59 am | Comment

“China has introduced direct elections for village chiefs in more than 660,000 villages, and many of those elected are not party members. ”
True conversation:
Friend: Yes, we have elections in our village.
Me: Oh, that’s good. How do they work?
Friend: First the party leaders go to each house in the village and tell us who we should vote for. Then we all go and vote for that person.

Maybe the leaders of the communist party want to talk about the “d” word, but the lower-ranking officials are the ones who get to interpret it. And they know precisely how they want to interpret it.

September 6, 2005 @ 9:50 am | Comment

Tis true, tis true dishuiguan. Unfortunately, even a 10,000 li journey begins with the first step.

Thailand is plaugued by such local goings on unfortuately. During an election, the Thai newspapers report all the democracy-loving voters ruturning from the cities to their villages so they can vote. That bit is true. Unfortunately, they are only going home to collect all the 500 Baht notes the local candidates ‘men-on-motorcycles’ will dole out for them. It essentially provides them with a free trip home.

So much for democracy!

September 6, 2005 @ 9:55 am | Comment

Btw, Fat Cat, I don’t know what nationality you are but both your Chinese and English are superb.

September 6, 2005 @ 10:01 am | Comment

I consider that this speech was all part of the pre-Hu visit to America spin intended to lighten the atmosphere. What with the release of dissedents, Chinese purchases of US Boeings, etc etc all part of China’s stage-managing of their leaders trip.

I would be interested to know whether Wen planned this speech befor eor after Washington called off the visit. Probably before.

September 6, 2005 @ 1:56 pm | Comment

I cannot believe The Sun reported Wen’s speech. What is the world coming to, or is it just a very slow news day in England?

September 6, 2005 @ 2:48 pm | Comment

Xinhua Domestic Service did report Hu’s speech. Some quotes (my translation):
“The rule of law using peaceful, reasoned methods is the best way to resolve contradictions in society.”
“A harmonious society is first of all a society with the democratic rule of law. Hu said China will continue to develop socialist, democratic politics, establish a sound system of democracy, enrich the forms of democracy, and ensure that the people exercise democratic voting, democratic policy making, democratic management, and democratic supervision in accordance with the law.”

September 6, 2005 @ 3:32 pm | Comment

Sure like to know how they got that speech through the internet filters…

September 6, 2005 @ 3:54 pm | Comment

democracy or not, what is important is that China keeps developing at all fronts into a developed country, in a peaceful and harmonious society, and stays united. So those who think that when China becomes a democracy, a form it will define on its own, then Taiwan, Tibet and other places can become independent…dream on because that will never happen in China. Also I do not understand why some of you try to avoid the word democracy, because the word is mentioned in full in articles you quote. Not very consistent. I suspect you try to create a negative atmosphere and link it to China.

September 6, 2005 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

Zhj, we’ve played with the spelling of “democracy” because at times spelling it out properly has created problems for those accessing the site in the PRC. There is a list of words that have caused such problems in the past. If you are able to access the post and the comments, good to know, and maybe we won’t have to go to such lengths in the future.

September 6, 2005 @ 5:23 pm | Comment


the candidates for the villages are not picked by the party and they do not have to be party members.

see this lengthy report by USIP

to others,

we can be skeptical about this. as it could take a few years to implement at the township level. we can also say he was talking to foreign audience, but note Wen’s original words were “I believe in several years they can manage a township. That would be an evolving system”.
Also, do we have any example of chinese premier in the past saying something in front of foreign press that contradicted the ‘party line’?

September 6, 2005 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

Paul, thanks for the compliment. I am a first generation migrant in Australia. Fat Cat is my real nickname that sibblings use. I arrived in Australia when I was young. Both of my parents are southern Chinese. I consider English as my first language because this was what I learnt first at school. I give credit to my parents for insisting on teaching me Chinese. I am fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin and can read both Standard Modern Chinese and Classical Chinese. I also have the privilege of being able to travel frequently to Hong Kong and China because of family connections. I even worked for several years in Hong Kong. I love both Australia and China but is sceptical of both the Howard Liberal Government in Australia and the CCP led Chinese government. Last but not least, I am not a man.

September 6, 2005 @ 8:00 pm | Comment

Something people seem to be missing here. Communist governments have always maintained that their systems ARE democratic. The People get to choose the leadership, through the party structures, etc.

So … it’s really no big deal for a Chinese leader to say “democracy is a good thing.” Or “we should have democracy.”

September 6, 2005 @ 8:02 pm | Comment

The Communist interpretation of “democracy” is a BIT like the British government’s concept of “virtual representation” of the American colonies in the 1700s. When American colonists were complaining about having no Parliamentary representatives of their own, Parliament and King George said: “Oh but you ARE represented in Parliament – virtually.
The MPs of England and Scotland etc will “virtually” represent Americans’ interests in Parliament.”
The American Revolution was the consequence of that fallacy. The Communist fallacy about “representing the people” is a very similar sack of bullshit.

September 6, 2005 @ 8:25 pm | Comment


You’re right of course about CCP having always officially claimed in the party charter that their system is democratic. But CCP leaders have rarely used the word democracy in the years after 1989, and never with so much emphasis as in the recent speeches of Hu and Wen. I think this is pretty significant, especially considering all this coincide with the commemoration of Hu Yaobang.

September 6, 2005 @ 11:10 pm | Comment

Yeah, wasn’t the old formulation “democratic centralism”?

September 7, 2005 @ 12:01 am | Comment

sun bin:
I never said they were/weren’t party members. All I said was that in my friend’s village, and I would suspect some other villages, the person who is elected is the one that the local party officials have decided to support. That could possibly be because they’re in the party, or it could just as easily be for another reason, for example, economic gains.

That’s a very interesting report you’ve linked to. I’ve only had the time to skim it, but I’m interested in some of the points made:
1) The implementation of elections at local level is “uneven”.
“Even where elections are held regularly, some are clearly a sham and others are badly managed. Local emperors with patronage to dispense can be democratically elected.”
I agree. China is so large that everything is true somewhere. Thus, I’m sure some villages are having democratic elections. But also plenty aren’t.

2) “the impact of “democracy” on peasants’ lives is limited. Nonelected, higher-level officials continue to make many decisions directly affecting the villagers’ lives.”
As far as I can tell, the village chief is elected, but the village political secretary isn’t. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) From personal experience I know that while the two posts are supposed to have equal weighting, when push comes to shove, the political secretary usually wins the fight.
(If you work in education, have you ever seen the department dean and the department political secretary having a screaming match? I have. Or there’s the example of the college president who punched the college political secretary in the face. It was the president who lost his post after that little altercation…though he probably should have lost it anyway, since it wasn’t exactly dignified behaviour.)

3) The correlation between income and democracy. “Rowen predicts that at its current rate of growth, China, with a per capita GDP of $2,500 in 1996, will become a democracy sometime around 2015.”
That certainly fits into the theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Ten more years to wait and see if he’s right…..

September 7, 2005 @ 12:18 am | Comment

Hui Mao:

The thing is that Yaobang isn’t a very controversial figure anymore. Now his successor, Zhao Ziyang, is because of the whole 1989 thing and the way his was removed from power. I’ll believe that the CCP is serious about reform (at least faster than a snail’s pace) when Zhao is rehabilitated. Until then Wen isn’t saying anything different from what he said before.

Wen and the CCP also haven’t addressed the real issues that block democracy in China, such as the required Communist membership of the civil service, the fact that people can’t form non-Communist political organisations (how can you have democracy without other parties?), can’t criticise the CCP as an organisation publicly (how can you have democracy if the ruling party is a sacred cow?), indoctrination of the PLA, etc.

Village-head elections mean nothing if those issues aren’t addressed.

September 7, 2005 @ 12:20 pm | Comment

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