democratic system for governing a group of people, small or large, must maintain the best interests of all the individuals involved. This general criterion must be upheld regardless of whether specifically what these best interests are cannot be unanimously agreed upon. Ideally, a democracy allows everyone involved an equal voice and vote regarding every decision that concerns that organization. Robert Dahl identifies the five primary components of the ideal democracy: "1. Effective participation. 2. Equality in voting. 3. Gaining enlightened understanding. 4. Exercising final control over the agenda. 5. Inclusion of adults." (Dahl 38). Essentially, along every step of the decision-making process each member of this association must have an equal opportunity to voice their opinions, vote, learn about the issues, choose what matters are to be considered, and everyone of age must be involved.
These somewhat rigid requirements can be difficult for even small organizations to uphold, and nearly impossible for something as large as a country. The unavoidable deviances from the ideological dream of a democratic state are one of the major barriers preventing nations from adopting this form of government.
China is a country with a five thousand year old history and over 1.2 billion people. Its people have dominated the landscape and history of Asia for millennia (Green 90). "China's geography played a central role in the development of its antique civilization. For most of its history China was cut off from other civilizations by the Pacific Ocean to the east, the barren steppes of central Asia to the west, and the mighty Himalaya Mountains to the southwest. The result was that China developed in relative isolation." (Green 6). Because of its unique place on the surface of the earth, China has rarely risked outright defeat from any outside civilizations -- thus they have maintained their individuality as a people and a nation.
At the risk of doing a great injustice to the thousands of years of ancient Chinese history I will sum it up as follows: for the past two millennia the geographic location we now call China has been fought over by a handful of powerful families and tribes trying to gain the strongest hold upon the nation's economy. Dynasty upon dynasty has been formed, come to power, decayed and been overthrown through the course of history. This could, of course, be the description of any feudal state anywhere in the world and until very recently China could be categorized as a feudal nation.
China became modern in a very short amount of time. From the end of the empire in 1911 to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China jumped from a nearly feudal agrarian state to a contender for world power with a furiously modern outlook." (Green 49). This change was sparked by the gradual decline of the Qing dynasty. The eventual incursion of the western powers and the following opium wars spelled the end of the feudal order in China, and the dawn of a Western-backed government.
Following World War II the two competing political parties in China, the Nationalists and the Communists, scrambled to gain power in the lands formerly occupied by the Japanese. A civil war followed between the two and in 1949 the Communists were victorious. Although the Communists boasted a commitment to the Marxist ideals of socialism, it became clear that they intended to remain in power with their military might. "China adopted a Stalinist strategy for economic development.... The Soviet model was regarded as a blueprint for the creation of a socialist economy." (Roberts 225).
This method of rule, however, is less concerned with the creation of a truly socialist state than it is with self preservation. At no time in recent history has this become more apparent than following the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. Thousand of Chinese college students took to the streets for thirteen days, demonstrating to the world that they wanted a more democratic society. Instead, Deng Xiaoping ordered the participants to be rundown by tanks. Harrison Salisbury recounts, "It is a situation pleasing to the army. The military has demonstrated to Deng that without it he cannot retain power. The commanders have demonstrated to themselves that they are more powerful than Deng or the party." (Salisbury 174).
The violence at Tiananmen Square in 1989 showed the Communist Party's unwillingness to relax political control. Yet, in other arenas, Chinese society is undergoing changes that are sometimes described as a second revolution." (Green 76). China is beginning to open its doors more fully to Western society -- its ways of life, values, standards of living, and most importantly, its economic prospects.
In 1997 president Jiang Zemin attempted to join the World Trade Organization despite the United State's vocal objections. And in 1998 President Bill Clinton visited Beijing in an effort to open-up trade and to pressure the Chinese government to cease human rights abuses. Yet, Zemin defended the actions of the government in June of 1989. Clearly, it appears that today, "The Communist Party is just as determined to play a greater role in the global economy as it is to hold onto power." (Green 94).
So, China is a nation deeply steeped in history and tradition, possessing a government that resembles a military dictatorship with a formal communist doctrine. It is reasonable to ask, what are such a nation's options towards the path of democracy? Some modern democracies were formed following a revolution, and bloody wars. Examples of this include the French Revolution, as well as the American Revolution. Yet neither of these revolutions occurred under strongly centralized military dictatorships like that of modern China. An overt civil rebellion in China seems unlikely anywhere in the near future; the government appears to hold all of the cards militarily.
Another option for the path towards democracy is outside military influence. But, if we are just to consider the United State's track record for installing democratic governments in countries they have invaded we see a discouraging trend. From Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Japan; only Japan has anything resembling a democracy, and this came at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Since China is an emerging superpower in the world, both militarily and economically, it is unlikely that any nation would chance outright military action, regardless of any ideological differences they might hold.
A further limitation to democracy is linked to the sheer number of Chinese people. With so many members of Chinese society it may not be apparent to all of its citizens that they could ever achieve an equal voice in their government. This is, of course, one of the fundamental flaws inherent in any democratic society with a large population: it is impractical for every citizen to truly participate equally in their government, so officials must be elected who generalize the opinions of those who elected them. With over 1.2 billion Chinese people many of the issues essential to the livelihood of some may be improperly handled or completely ignored by a democratic government. This is not to say that the current Chinese government addresses all of the problems of its citizens, but a democracy may still ignore the same problems.
Greek democracy offered perhaps the greatest voice to its members; however, this was because it was limited in size. Athens had only a few hundred thousand inhabitants, and of those only a select few were allowed to become official citizens. If we want a democracy that stands on more solid moral ground, every person of legal age would have to be given the right to vote and equal participation along every step of the governmental process. Unfortunately, the best model for a democracy that could ever be applied to China is that of the European nations; in which every government official is elected by the populous and there are a wide variety of political parties to represent the diverse needs of the citizens.
Despite the fact that the current government in China is extremely resistant to political change, they are not however, particularly resistant to economic change. This must be the path towards democracy in China. Capitalist economies "have proved themselves more efficient in producing growth than anything else. Societies that can afford to spread the wealth around are usually more tolerant and more inclined to accept those compromises that make democracy possible." (Downing 40). If President Clinton's visit to China illustrates anything it is that the nation wishes to become a member of the world economy. To become a world economic power the Chinese government will be forced to surrender some of its power to private citizens.
Therefore, it should be the goal of the United States and other Democratic nations to facilitate trade with private citizens and corporations within China while, at the same time, pressuring the existing government to relax its choke-hold on the human rights of the general populous. This will be a slow and painful process -- it may take generations.