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Dreaming of Democracy in China

Dreaming of Democracy in China

A Chinese student reflects on why her country is authoritarian—and how democracy has a chance. Look for AP’s symposium on the China challenge, in partnership with the Hoover Institution, in early spring.

Jinfeng Mu

How has the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintained its hold on China for more than seventy years? Why has China provided fertile soil for Chinese authoritarian ideology? Why doesn’t it have the resources to support the growth of democracy and freedom? For me, those questions are concrete and personal.

Because I grew up in China, I have firsthand knowledge about what it means to live in a country where the CCP, over several generations, has stripped the terms “democracy” and “rule of law” of any real meaning—and is now trying to erase the meaning of those words in the rest of the world.

In 2019, mass protests and violent conflict broke out between police and protesters in Hong Kong. People who participated in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement have been warned or arrested—and all comments on China’s social media that supported the Hong Kong protests have been deleted. That was also around the time when I started work on my graduate degree in the United States. I met a Uighur woman from Xinjiang, in the northwest of China.

We became WeChat friends—but I noticed that in her messages to me, she would often forward articles from official Chinese government sources. When we met in person, I asked her why. She answered that whenever she posted material, she had to add repostings from the WeChat account of a local police officer. That was how she kept herself safe. She also had to report all her travel promptly to the police. In Xinjiang, local police officers would take turns living in Uighur family homes to surveil their daily lives more closely.

The Uighur woman wanted to earn her Ph.D. in the United States, but first she had to return to China as soon as she finished her master’s degree. The police knew who she was—she had been required to register before she left—and if she wasn’t back in time, her family would be in trouble. On the day she left, she told me, “I have no choice, because my family is in Xinjiang.” I still remember the comment. She had done nothing to irritate the Chinese government, but she was deprived of choice and condemned to silence.

The victims aren’t just Hong Kong protestors—or even Uighur women suffering from the party’s birth control policy in Xinjiang. The same policy has victimized most Chinese women for a long time. In the 1990s, several years after I was born, my mother was pregnant again. But the family planning policy in effect then was the one-child policy. A family that had a second child would face dismissal from the breadwinner’s job and a fine that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars for a family with a monthly salary of less than $200. My mother had no choice. She got an abortion.

I remember, as a child, seeing my mother sitting in a chair, looking out the window. She was thinking of her other child, the one who never had a chance. We can add those lives to the CCP’s massacres during the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square.

It’s different today. Because of the declining demographic dividend and labor shortages, the Chinese government successively introduced a two-child, then a three-child policy. What is constant is the CCP’s view of individual human beings as tools of the regime.

When I came to the United States, I experienced many challenges; but I also saw, for the first time, democratic institutions and a multicultural society based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The contrast to China was stark, and I started to think further about the reasons for the persistence of authoritarian ideology in China.

The first reason, I think, lies in the limitations of the language surrounding democracy and human rights. In the older Chinese language, the word for democracy is the same as the word for monarch. Until modern times, there was no term corresponding to “Western democracy.”

Today, the word for “democracy” in Mandarin Chinese is “min zhu.” “Min” means people; “zhu” means master. The CCP has presented the meaning of “min zhu” not as “the people are the masters” but as “the people’s master.” In this way, a democracy that conforms to Beijing’s rules is substituted for real democracy. Thus, when people vote for local representatives to the People’s Congress, they are told before the voting starts which candidate should be elected. It is no surprise.

There are other linguistic sleights of hand. Beijing defines human rights to include a right to survival and a right to development, but both are often out of reach for disadvantaged groups. Take, for example, the physically disabled. In 2021, as reported by Chinese statistics, the country had eighty million disabled people (though those are only the people with official disability certificates). But because of discrimination and the absence of barrier-free facilities, disabled people have difficulty in getting jobs. Local governments provide subsidies to disabled people; they amount to $7 to $12 per person per month. As a volunteer, I saw a local Disabled Persons Federation without any elevators or barrier-free facilities; indeed. The service office was on the seventh floor.

A second reason for the persistence of authoritarian ideology in China is that the CCP never intended to make China democratic. In historical perspective, the CCP is just another of the eighty-three authoritarian dynasties that have ruled China over the past four thousand years. Indeed, compared with the Zhou dynasty, which lasted 790 years, the CCP has existed for only 100 years and been in power for only 62 years. While dynasties rise and fall, what persists is statist-oriented ideology, along with its political structure. Both are deeply ingrained among Chinese citizens. More, beginning in the Han Dynasty, Confucianism became dominant in Chinese culture. Its original purpose was to serve autocratic rule. It, too, has shaped Chinese minds and stunted individual consciousness for thousands of years.

A third factor underlying Chinese authoritarian ideology is that too many national collective traumas eventually produce an egoist society. Class struggle has dominated Chinese history; Beijing encourages this type of struggle in order to maintain the stability of the regime. Thus, though Chinese culture emphasizes collectivism, there is no cohesion within society; among the effects of Beijing’s strategy is to produce egoism instead of trust. Egoism is different from individualism. An egoist society is more prone to produce autocracy than it is to create democracy.

A fourth reason for the persistence of authoritarian ideology in China is that in an agricultural civilization, it is easy to generate an authoritarian regime. The Central Plains Region, the birthplace of Han culture, is located in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. The area is tillable; therefore, agriculture has been the foundation of Chinese civilization for thousands of years. In an agricultural society, economic production, shaped by enclosed terrain, is conservative and closed. In addition, the small-scale peasant economy turns out to be vulnerable and susceptible to natural disasters, war damage, and land annexation; a society with a high level of centralized authority can relatively effectively maintain normal economic production.

Yet the small-scale peasant economy, instead of developing systematic scientific theories, can only drive the development of production tools. Today, even though China has made great strides in technology, it is the technology of applications, like software and systems, instead of independent research and self-directed innovation. That is the reason why China has become a manufacturing country rather than a technology-based power.

Since the economic reforms of 1978, China has begun to integrate into the world market economic system. Beijing squeezes as much work out of its labor force for as little salary as possible to maintain its status as the “world’s factory,” in a major violation of workers’ rights and interests. Although Beijing encourages self-directed innovation, it also acquiesces in the theft of intellectual property.

Beijing tries to avoid mentioning the word “taxpayers” in order to sustain the CCP’s legitimacy and prevent the Chinese people from realizing that it is the taxpayers who feed the government. When people affected by a natural disaster receive government relief, they kneel and cry, “We are grateful to the Chinese Communist Party for helping us.” This behavior occurs because people are never told that the help comes from their own taxes, not the CCP.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, Beijing has vigorously propagandized “the Chinese Dream,” portraying China as a superpower. However, beneath this aggressive appearance are inferiority and fear. Xi’s reign is making Chinese society worse—with a deteriorating economic situation, lack of innovation, increasing inequality, and expanding social contradictions. Many people who live in authoritarian countries lack effective ways to resist, but their hearts are screaming. Comments like the ones that supported the Hong Kong protests on mainland China’s social media can be deleted, but the minds that yearn for freedom and equality are unstoppable.

Even though most people are still in the dark right now, we should not give up the desire for light. Freedom and justice bred in the dark will make dawn brighter, and China is no exception to this principle.

Jinfeng Mu* is a Chinese student who formerly lived in the United States.

*A pseudonym