“History’s Conclusion: Western Style Democracy is Not for China”

The following is an article from Huanqiu Lianwang by Song Luzheng.


Translated by Tom Martyn

Both Marxism and Western style democracy arrived in China from the West, with the latter arriving first. Not only did democratic theory attract the interest of Chinese political elites, but democracy was attempted on two occasions. One was the constitutional monarchy-orientated 100 Days Reform movement and the reforms of the late Qing dynasty. The other was the American style ‘Constitution of Five Powers’ during Nationalist rule. Marxism only really influenced China after the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. However, it was Marxism that gradually emerged victorious amongst the various political movements, including Western style democracy, leading China to a new period. It was Marxism that culminated in the attainment of the long strived for goal of Chinese people of independence and national unity.

Both ideas came from the West, yet one led China to glory, and the other failed despite having first bite of the cherry. Looking back through history, the underlying reasons for this still have a very strong practical significance.

One explanation has been popular recently. It goes that during the 1930s and 40s, the West suffered from economic crises and war, which was in contrast to the successes experienced by the Soviet Union. Add in the necessity of saving the nation, this led Chinese history to choose Marxism. External reasons are indeed important, but they are not defining. The correct explanation comes from an examination of Marxism and China itself.

We know that Marxism is made up of two parts, basic theory and revolutionary strategy. Basic theory includes historical materialism and surplus value. Revolutionary theory includes class struggle and violent revolution. In the opinion of noted philosopher Li Zehou, historical materialism is central. This means that production methods, productivity and science and technology are the foundation of the continuation and development of society. This is a pre-condition of understanding why Marxism succeeded in China.

Before Marxism arrived in China, the theory of evolution had already been accepted by Chinese intellectuals. This is partly connected to the traditional practical and rational Confucian ideal of ‘productive learning’, or ‘learning to benefit the country’. The idea that humans developed from apes was especially able to be accepted by China, as it is not traditionally a religious country, in contrast to Western nations. Intellectuals including Lu Xun, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu first accepted evolutionary theory, then became believers of Marx.

There are four main reasons why evolutionary theory was replaced by Marxism. One, historical materialism more specifically explains human history, and is not a simplistic ‘survival of the fittest’ and species evolution theory. Marxism has a greater rational persuasiveness. This emphasis on history matches closely with China, which itself emphasises history and has a rich historical sentiment.

Two, China has a long and strong Utopian tradition. The Confucian ideal of a stable universe, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, Qing reformer Kang Youwei’s utopian treatise ‘Book of Great Unity’, and Sun Yatsen’s ‘all under heaven are equal’ concept are progressions of and from each other. Other schools of thought that have influenced Chinese society, such as Taoism, the Mohists and Buddhism, also have Utopian ideals. The Marxist depiction of the future is thus closely aligned with this Chinese tradition.

The third point relates to the moralism present in Chinese traditions and political culture. One of the key values of Marxism is criticism of capitalists, repudiation of exploitation, and sympathy for the proletariat and working class, i.e., it has a strong moral component.

Fourth and finally, Marxism has a strong emphasis on practical application, particularly class conflict and violent revolution. This was suitable to the requirements of the desperate situation China was in at the time.

Thus, the intrinsic reasons the Chinese intellectuals accepted Marxism are the identification and superposition of Marxism with Chinese traditional thinking, sentimental leanings and psychological structure. This in turn led to the swift ‘Sinofication’ of Marxism, i.e., it brought about the rise of Mao Zedong Thought, it united the disparate and individualistic Chinese people and gave rise to a huge revolution in society. The significance of this revolution in Chinese history is particularly special, in that it led to equality in society following the eradication of landlords and the capitalist classes, the improvement of the position of women in society, and land reforms. This energy or potential was evident at the foundation of the PRC. Even though the country was in a mess with much work requiring to be done, China was still able to match up to the most powerful country of the time, America. This changed the 100 year old weak and stagnant international image of China.

In contrast, Western style democracy went from being advocated early on but eventually discarded. It is the ‘practicalness’ of China that accounts for why Western democracy was accepted during the late Qing and Republican era. The systems used by the big powers of Britain, United States and France, as well as the Western system used in Japan, caused people all over the country to believe that only constitutionalism or republicanism could save China. However, the reason for its success was also the reason for its failure. During the Republican era, once these constitutional systems came under the influence of former Qing officials and later warlords like Yuan Shikai and Cao Kun, the ever-practical Chinese intellectuals quickly lost faith in such systems.

There are many reasons why Western democracy failed in China. One is the strictness of conditions required for Western democracy. To implement parliamentary democracy, a census needs to be conducted to determine the size of each province. However, the first census was conducted in 1953, after the establishment of the PRC. During the elections carried out during the late Qing and Republican era, numbers were only estimated, thus there was an innate inadequacy present.

Additionally, democracy requires the establishment of political parties. This runs counter to the Chinese political tradition of eschewing ‘group’ formations. More importantly, a system of competition between parties is not at all suited to China. Chinese traditional political thought holds that if power is held clearly in one place, then society will be stable and in a position to develop. Once the location of power becomes unclear, it will promote factionalism, infighting, open up power struggles and cause chaos. The only thing that competition between political parties brought to China was the assassination of Song Jiaoren, the failed Second Revolution of Sun Yatsen, and warlordism

A lack of moralism is another area where Western democracy is at odds with Chinese traditions. As early reformer Zhang Binglin said, ‘the dynasty changed, but the corrupt officials bandied together’. During the Republican era, bureaucrats and opportunists from the previous administration all remained in their old positions, and there was no shortage of degenerate and morally reprehensible tyrants able to enter Parliament. Zhang Binglin opposed them as enemies of the people. It was democracy of the monied classes and local tyrants. As far as the Chinese people were concerned, it was just yet another group of oppressors. This was the situation in China at the time. A democracy lacking in morals is naturally unable to compete with the collectivism, unity, selflessness, and probity of Marxism.

In conclusion, there are two main reasons for the failure of Western style democracy in China. Western style democracy deviates from Chinese humanist traditions, and it is unable to solve China’s actual problems. In turn, these are also the reasons for the success of Marxism. Without a sufficient societal, economic and thought base, any reform is destined to meet with failure. For a period after 1949, China went through a period that emphasized ideology and subjective initiative. This represented a departure from Marxism. However, since the beginning of Reform and Opening, Deng Xiaoping’s advocacy of ‘science as primary production strength’ is a return to Marxism. The success of China in the last 30 years cannot be explained or expressed by any Western theories. As American historical scientist and scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn said, it is impossible to use words from an old concept to understand a new concept. China is creating a new path for the development of human society.

0 thoughts on ““History’s Conclusion: Western Style Democracy is Not for China””

  1. The article started out interesting, but the moment it went to praise “Marxism” you know it’s pure BS. It was capitalism which saved China and the Communist party in recent times. I am pretty sure most Chinese, even those who belong to the Communist Party would feel the same way.

    My biggest concern with this particular article though, is the recent threat of the comment section being shutdown. This kind of article is the perfect flame bait IMO. The keyboard warriors must not let this potential go to waste.


  2. Key reason for failure of democracy in China: democracy requires people to compromise and try to achieve a win-win situation so that both sides of an issue can make progress. In China if you leave something on the table for the other guy, and its not a gambit for forcing future concessions, then you have failed.
    Chinese are the least socialist people on the planet – no social consciousness at all. If you’re not in my family then why should I care about you? No way to build society except by force.


  3. He makes a passable point about traditional Chinese culture’s parallels with Marxism, but did the author not-so-sublty imply that Chinese are too immoral for democracy? If so, thats a new one.


  4. Title looked like it could make for interesting conversation… then it turned out to be 1970s-style editorial plugging Marxism over democracy. Dammit Huanqiu. There’s a ton of reasons why democracy isn’t right for China, but the only one here that isn’t ideological claptrap is:

    “Additionally, democracy requires the establishment of political parties. This runs counter to the Chinese political tradition of eschewing ‘group’ formations. More importantly, a system of competition between parties is not at all suited to China.”

    Reality is neither Marxism nor democracy works for China. China’s success has nothing to do Marxism. Pragmatism is the name of the game, outside ideologies mean little in modern China.


  5. @keisaat
    Nah, it’s not racism.
    For whatever reason, probably due to disillusionment with the original socialist ideals, the control of social conciousness by the Party, modern crony capitalism etc, the level of social conciousness in China is lower than a lot of places. But I wouldn’t say it’s the lowest in the World. A friend of mine went to India and said that he saw a car accident where someone got run over, and the bystanders started laughing (!!!). China definitely isn’t at that point yet.

    By the way, I bet in 1949 the situation was different. People probably had a high level of social conciousness like people in Benghazi today, where you hear of guys randomly going out into the street and picking up garbage.


  6. “There are four main reasons why evolutionary theory was replaced by Marxism.”

    Did he just conflate hard science with ideological drivel? Wo de tian a.


  7. Interesting article I guess. I kept on waiting for more proof how democracy didn’t fit . Well I guess the article felt a little towards the end like propaganda . Just me.

    The article is right that pure capitalism has no social morality. It’s a dog eat dog system. Only the sharks eat system. There are people who say the Bankers behind the CDO’s don’t deserve punishment because the Bankers worked the system and won. The sharks ate and everyone else paid the dinner bill.

    I feel democracy in the US right now is “I’m right your wrong and if I bend to meet you half way I am being a wuss”. Compromise seems to be the last thing on anyones mind. So saying Democracy can’t work in china because you believe the people are not socialist enough, well seems to me that is the perfect set up for the democracy we have in the US. Just my opinion not a flame just discussing.


  8. This article seemed to make a little sense at the start. I am fairly sure that most people can look at the Chinese system and notice without a blink of an eye that behind the communist veil is the same root system as the west. The rich becoming richer off the backs of the poor. The west uses business and capitalism to do it, China uses the communist doctrine to do it. The west has not quite binded its citizens to it, but at least for the most part pacified its citizens with a small amount of luxury, where China, not having that option resorts to heavy handed tactics.


  9. “Article 9. Mineral resources, waters, forests, mountains, grassland, unreclaimed land, beaches and other natural resources are owned by the state, that is, by the whole people, with the exception of the forests, mountains, grassland, unreclaimed land and beaches that are owned by collectives in accordance with the law. The state ensures the rational use of natural resources and protects rare animals and plants. The appropriation or damage of natural resources by any organization or individual by whatever means is prohibited.

    Article 10. Land in the cities is owned by the state. Land in the rural and suburban areas is owned by collectives except for those portions which belong to the state in accordance with the law; house sites and private plots of cropland and hilly land are also owned by collectives. The state may in the public interest take over land for its use in accordance with the law. No organization or individual may appropriate, buy, sell or lease land, or unlawfully transfer land in other ways. All organizations and individuals who use land must make rational use of the land.”


    Article 9 and 10 in the Chinese constitution, which ensure the public ownership of land and natural resources, are the reason why China is still a socialist country, no matter how many Western style policies she adapts. Note that although the ruling party has “communism” in its name, Chinese is actually a socialist country, not a communist country according to her constitution.

    IMHO, democracy or not is not important, if 1. people respect the constitution and law. 2. the ruling class can be held accountable. The democracy currently practiced in the U.S. is a farce, without reform of the campaign financial law and implantation of congress term limits.


  10. “Chinese are the least socialist people on the planet – no social consciousness at all. ”

    Since not too many people hold the term “socialist” in high regards my guess is that “steven” is a european.

    If the Europeans think they are so civil, why don’t they open up their borders and allow the lesser fortunate to come over in order live better lives? The answer is simple: because they know very well that doing so would adversely affect their own quality of life. It’s rather easy to talk the talk.


  11. “If the Europeans think they are so civil, why don’t they open up their borders and allow the lesser fortunate to come over in order live better lives?”

    European nations let in lots of refugees and immigrants.

    China sends any North Korean refugee back to the gulags as soon as they catch them.


  12. Minus the leader cult, “small f” fascism seems the best fit for the PRC now:

    A political regime, having totalitarian aspirations, ideologically based on a relationship between business and the centralized government, business-and-government control of the market place, repression of criticism or opposition, a leader cult and exalting the state and/or religion above individual rights.


  13. A little bit 对牛弹琴 concerning the Democracy/Marxist importing.

    Seems like the Marxists knew their Chinese history and took the 牟融 approach.


  14. “The third point relates to the moralism present in Chinese traditions and political culture. One of the key values of Marxism is criticism of capitalists, repudiation of exploitation, and sympathy for the proletariat and working class, i.e., it has a strong moral component.”

    Exactly, it was called the Cultural Revolution and it did wonders for the proletariat.


  15. Someone picked an article out of the Chinese press bacause there was democracy in the header…
    You should have come across the fact that these articles follow a long tradition and that their meaning does not lie in the broad implication but rather in few details or the frequency they appear. It is just highly unlikely to read something noteworthy about democracy in the RMRB and you surely didn’t find one of the few that do. Chinese blogs offer distinctively more substancial sources for this kind of efforts. Just my 2cents.


  16. Communism did not come from the West. It came from the Soviets which are right next to the Chinese. The Chinese where a Democracy after their Monarch stage. In which the Soviet Bolshevkians then invaded the Chinese with the help of Colonial Mao. In which the Soviets like they did in Russia. Killed hundreds of millions of Democratic intellects. The force feeding the few intellects left that Communism was the right form of governance. The idea that there is some kind of East West Democracy, is just like the Soviets saying the same thing that they where a Democracy too. China is not a political adversary system. Therefore, it is not any form of Democracy. There is no Chinese Characateristics as what they are doing is very Bolshevkian and Characteristics of Bolshevkian style rule. Along with that the tradition of China is not Communism. It was tribal and togetherness through logic before the Monarchs. Then after the Monarchs again it was tribal and logic which is known as Democracy. Now it is back to a Monarchist style state with one party rule, as the Monarch. Along these lines the Bolshevkian Characteristics they so call Chinese Characteristics, where implemented by decade long rule by the Soviets over China through Colonial Mao.
    Rider I
    These people constantly lie to themselves to appease The Communist party. They know what happened.


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