Why the Chinese don’t embrace western style democracy?
To understand that, we need to go back in time and exercise our imagination a little bit.
Imagine if you lived in a country that, for 4,000 years of history, was in the top of the world technologically, economically and politically. If you lived in that era, you would had heard histories about the greatness of China and, along everyone else, would had been proud of it. But in the last two hundred years your country would lose the edge to almost everybody, and would be humiliated and subjugated by world powers.
First was the european imperialism in Central Asia, which the great exponent was the infamous Opium Wars. Powerful Britain, in 1839, militarily forced China to accept the sale of Opium (banned by law) to the population. The chinese almost annihilated themselves due to inevitable addiction to the drug, thus affecting the traditions, daily life and morals of millions of people. While Britain profited and expanded the empire, the chinese emperor was losing his face due to lack of power to control the situation. Indirectly, this powerless situation was affecting a central part of the chinese culture which historically relied on hierarchical status and paternal figures such as the emperor.
To the weakened state ensued economic chaos and therefore many civil wars and famines that cost thirty-forty millions lives in the second half of the XIX century alone. Some historians talk about two hundred million lives but I found this figure exaggerated. Anyway, China was basically decimated by the end of the XIX century. Hong Kong was lost to the British. The first wave of the great chinese diaspora started. Millions left the country and settled around the world.
While china suffered, Japan modernized its economy and army. The Emperor of China, in 1894, tried to help Korea (under chinese influence) to fight an expansionist Japan. The local skirmish lead to a larger conflict, the first sino-japanese war. China lost again and Taiwan, another important part of the territory, was annexed by Japan.
Chaos followed inside the Qing Dynasty circle of power and a tentative to reform the country and install a constitutional monarchy by emperor Guangxu was stopped. The almighty emperor was put in house arrest where he died in 1908. It was the end of the last Dynasty in China.
The Qing Dynasty Emperor lived in the forbidden city palace until 1912
In 1912 the Republic of China was founded. With it, promises to transform China into a democratic and modern state by the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party lead by Chiang-Kai-Shek. The dreams of a new China were short lived due to the explosion of the second world war and the invasion by Imperial Japan in 1937, a time where the communist party decided to support the rival instead of slowing their reforms.
Besides the 20 million deaths caused by the war, the Mass Rape of chinese women in Nanking (the capital of China at that time) by japanese forces was the event which lead to the hatred of Japan and the imperial-capitalist model in the minds of many chinese. With the end of the war, the nationalists and the communists, which got along well during the war, started to fight again.
Another civil war, which was won by the communists led by a man called Mao Zedong, started a new chapter in China’s chaotic modern history. In October 1st of 1949, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China, a socialist state headed by a “democratic dictatorship” led by his own Communist Party. Socialism was chosen over capitalism. A cornered Chiang-Kai-Shek, the leader of the Nationalist Party and pro capitalism, fled to Taiwan (now free of the Japanese) and founded the Republic of China.
So bear in mind that, still today, there are two official Chinas: ROC, known as Taiwan; and PRC, known as China. One of the reasons that China (lead by the Communist Party) still thinks Taiwan is a rebel province and not a sovereign state, is because it was founded by the leader of the rival party in 1949. Some people really don’t forget about the past.
So, starting in 1949, China embraced officially communism, influenced by the Soviet Union and its aversion to capitalism. What followed in the government of Mao Zedong was a complete disaster. First, he focused on developing a military might (the A-bomb was mastered in 1964) and a complete utopian view of communism society that, among other things, needed to revere his personality. Lack of freedom of expression became rule and everybody that didn’t agree with his policies was persecuted. Plans to jumpstart the economy and create new social conventions such as the “The Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” put the fragile economy of China in a catatonic state.
To end his myriad of mistakes, Mao broke the ties with the powerful Soviet Union due to ideological differences with its leader Nikita Khrushchev. Mao thought that the soviet focus on materialism would corrupt the revolutionary spirit of communists. In a historic phrase, Khrushchev told Mao: “If we could promise the people nothing but revolution, they would scratch their heads and say ‘Isn’t it better to have good goulash?’”
More than 30 million died of Starvation during Mao Zedong’s rule from 1949 until his death in 1976. Although he killed dozens of millions of his comrades by hunger and repression, took civil liberties from them and destroyed China’s economy, Mao is still idolized by part of the population and some sectors of the communist party.
After Mao’s death, a wise statesman named Deng Xiaoping started the reforms that created today's China. As a member of the communist party and with an aversion to western style of capitalism (British and Japanese invasions were well remembered), Deng created what we know today as “Socialism with chinese characteristics”, which is in another words, State Capitalism. To avoid more conflict and chaos in China, Deng opted for an one-party rule and to suppress some civil liberties in order to take China out of the decadent state it was in the late 70's.
It seems his plan worked out very well and hundreds of millions of people were lifted from absolute poverty in the last 40 years. With life getting better and better, the country modernizing at a pace never seen in history and with all the bitter memories of the last 200 years still in memory, wouldn’t you be tempted to praise the leaders that made it happen? If I were Chinese it would look like magic.
That is the dilemma of China. What they have today is 1000x better of what they had in the last century. We need to be careful to judge a country that suffered so much and achieved so little in the last 200 years prior to Deng Xiaoping. Say what you want to say about the quasi-dictatorship of the communist party but they’re damn good and deserve a lot of praise for their competence and for changing the lives of a billion people.
Within time, reforms will inevitably occur and chinese people will understand they’re still poor as a civil society and that individuals lack the freedoms take for granted in other parts of the world. They’ll, at some point in time, demand western civil liberties.
Deng Xiaoping once said:
“To China’s problems, the overwhelming priority is stability. Without a stable environment, nothing can be achieved, and what has been achieved will be lost… Democracy is our goal, but the country must remain stable.”