This joke has gone on long enough. I am prepared to believe that the system of government on the mainland is effective in many ways. It can certainly be argued that most of the population are content with it, although in view of what happens to those who express discontent this is hard to establish.

By no sensible stretch of the meaning of the word can the Chinese system be described as democratic. Yet that seems to be the current line.

File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Of course it is “democratic” with a prefix. There is a long history of this sort of thing. When military take-overs were frequent events in the 1960s it was noticed that the resultant regimes frequently described themselves as a new variation on Democracy, dignified with a prefix: Authoritative, Developmental, Alternative, or in one case just New.

These interesting concepts were generally dismissed outside the country where they were the official theory of government, as a mere cosmetic effort to keep a despotic regime in the “Free World” where it would continue to receive American largesse.

This however is not the explanation for what has come over explainers of the Chinese system, of which this (from the China Daily) is a representative example: “The Chinese mainland is well known for putting the concept of ‘whole process democracy’ into real practice. Our country has successfully converted the vision and values of democracy into a scientific, institutionalized system.”

And how does that work, one wonders? Here is the Global Times (spotted by Hemlock): “Whole-process democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state.”

Well democracy is an easy-going lady, willing to consort with a wide variety of systems and habits, but I don’t think she is as broad-minded as that. It’s a fuzzy concept and nobody suggests that there is a clear dividing line. But that does not mean the difference between democracy and non-democracy is a trivial matter.

File Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Most writers come up with three or four accepted variations: direct or participatory – the town meeting or the Athenian assembly; elitist – where leaders are chosen by the public from a limited group; and pluralist – where groups compete with each other to influence policy.

Some people have a separate category for “social democracy”, meaning the idea common in Europe that the state has a wide range of responsibilities for the health and well-being of citizens.

The longest list I could find is from an Indian student who gets up to eight: Direct democracy, Representative democracy, Presidential democracy, Parliamentary democracy, Authoritarian democracy, Participatory democracy, Islamic democracy and social democracy.

Authoritarian democracy looks like a contradiction in terms. It is reserved for two polities: Russia under Putin and Hong Kong. Yes, and I’m a bit dubious about the Islamic one too. But of Whole Process Democracy there is no sign.

Nor is there any sign of that commonplace of mainland propaganda, often preceded by “so-called”, the spurned “Western democracy”.

It seems that defenders of democracy have the same problem as defenders of medicine, who struggle to get over the message that there is no such thing as conventional medicine, or alternative medicine, or traditional medicine. There is just medicine, which is the stuff which can be shown to work.

There is nothing particularly Western about democracy. The largest example is India. In some ways the most successful one is Japan. Dare we mention Taiwan?

Taiwan’s honorary guard holding the Taiwanese flag on the top of the Presidential office building during the ceremony of Taiwan National Day at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan on October 10, 2021. Photo: Walid Bezzareg/HKFP.

While it may be difficult to define exactly what is democracy, it is easy to identify some characteristics which are incompatible with it. Aristotle, who gets some of the blame for originating the idea, said that “the basis of a democratic state is liberty”. John Locke, who gets some of the blame for the American revolution, said that no government could be legitimate unless it enjoys the consent of the governed, and that consent cannot be rendered except through majority rule. John Stuart Mill said that restrictions on the expression of opinions are never justified. The 20th century political theorist Robert Dahl concluded that “because democracy is not only a political system of ‘rule by the people’ but necessarily also a system of rights, a government which infringes those rights is to that extent undemocratic.”

Mr Dahl also offered a set of requirements for a democratic system. It should include:

  • Free, fair, and frequent elections.
  • Freedom of expression.
  • Independent sources of information.
  • Freedom of association.

I do not think it is possible to see China meeting these requirements, even if you are prepared to overlook what the Economist recently described as “a form of tyranny in which individuals are crushed for displeasing the party, whether feminists, human-rights lawyers, gay activists, creators of art deemed “unhealthy”, underground Christians or Uyghurs.”

File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

It is natural for countries to aspire to democracy, or if that is inconvenient for the democratic label.

Mr Dahl again:

History—particularly 20th-century history— demonstrates that democracy uniquely possesses a number of features that most people, whatever their basic political beliefs, would consider desirable: (1) democracy helps to prevent rule by cruel and vicious autocrats; (2) modern representative democracies do not fight wars with one another; (3) countries with democratic governments tend to be more prosperous than countries with nondemocratic governments; and (4) democracy tends to foster human development—as measured by health, education, personal income, and other indicators—more fully than other forms of government do.

We must recognise that countries following non-democratic paths may also achieve the happy results of avoiding cruel autocrats, not fighting wars, getting rich and fostering human development. Good for them.

But there is a simple logical trap here. Just because all dogs have four legs it does not follow that all animals with four legs are dogs. Achieving peace, prosperity and development while avoiding viciousness is praiseworthy, but does not demonstrate democracy.

We must all hope that the mainland has found its way to an effective and successful system of government, if only because that system is the gift which is now being bestowed on us. But democracy it is not.


HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.