During the state visit for Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Barack Obama pressed President Hu on human rights,
but he also should have pushed a message about the importance of
spreading democracy in China. If he had done that, he may have been
surprised at what he would have heard.
In September 2010, President Hu gave a speech in Hong Kong in which he called for new thinking about Chinese democracy. Said Hu, "There is a need to...hold democratic elections according to the law; have democratic decision-making, democratic management as well as democratic supervision; safeguard people's right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise."
His remarks elaborated on previous comments from Chinese premier Wen Jiaboa, delivered in Shenzhen, the coastal free enterprise zone at the forefront of China's economic revolution. Wen said that without reforms of the political system, gains from reforms of the economic system would go down the drain. Political reform is necessary, said Wen, to sustain the nation's breakneck economic growth, including opportunities for citizens to criticize and monitor the government.
Wen's remarks led to speculation that Shenzhen, which set the pace for China's economic development, could soon become a "special political zone." Sino experts noted that a next step could be direct elections for the chiefs of the Special Economic Zone's six districts.
Yet when it comes to the subject of representative democracy in China, numerous sinologists continue to say, "Don't hold your breath." But the notion may not be as far-fetched - or as far off - as the cynics believe.
For example, most westerners will be surprised to learn that China already holds more elections than any other nation in the world. Under the Organic Law of the Village Committees, all of China's approximately one million villages -- home to some 600 million voters -- hold elections every three years for local village committees.
Critics scoff at these elections and say they are manipulated by local Communist Party officials. But Robert Benewick, a research professor at the University of Sussex, says that village elections have been growing more competitive, with more independent candidates and use of the secret ballot becoming more common. For those elections where there has been real competition, researchers claim to have evidence of positive impacts.
Yao Yang is a soft-spoken economist who met with me over lunch one day in Shanghai to discuss his research about the impact of local elections. In a study that looked at 40 villages over 16 years, his research found that the introduction of elections had led to increased spending on public services by 20 percent, while reducing spending for "administrative costs" -- bureaucratic-speak for corruption -- by 18 percent. Premier Wen has indicated that village elections might be extended to the next highest government level - township administrations -- over the next few years.
China's modest experiments with local elections have been supplemented with exercises in what is known as "deliberative democracy." These take the shape of high-tech New England-style town hall meetings. China hired Stanford University professor James Fishkin to draft a randomly-selected, scientifically-representative sample of average citizens from the city of Zeguo to participate in an assembly using the Internet, keypad polling devices and handheld computers to decide how their city should spend a $6 million public works budget. The Zeguo exercise was considered hugely successful and has been replicated in other places.
Professor Yu Keping, who is deputy director of a Communist Party institute and author of a prominent book called "Democracy Is a Good Thing," is said to have the ear of President Hu. He and others have been nudging democracy forward in another direction that shows great promise -- internal democracy within the ruling Communist Party. Holding competitive elections for party posts already has begun at lower levels, with votes for provincial and national party congresses showing electoral slates with 15 to 30 percent more candidates than positions.
Given that the Communist Party has a membership of 73 million people, such a "democratic vanguard" holds potential. If internal elections become widespread, the lines of ideological difference within elite circles might become more clearly drawn, which could further spur calls for some kind of representational structure. Rapid change in China already has resulted in a battle of ideas pitting the coasts and cities against the countryside and inland provinces, and the rich against poor. Internal elections are increasingly seen by some as a healthy vehicle for airing these differences.
Most sinologists believe that if Chinese democracy continues to develop it is unlikely to be an exact copy of the Western model. Many are intrigued by the vision promoted by Confucian-inspired intellectuals like Jiang Qing, who have put forward an innovative proposal for a tricameral legislature. Legislators in one chamber would be selected based on merit and competency, and in the others based on elections of some kind. One elected chamber may be reserved only for Communist Party members, the other for representatives elected by everyday Chinese.
Such a tricameral legislature, its proponents believe, would better ensure that political decisions are made by more educated and enlightened representatives, instead of the rank populism of Western-style elected factions.
It's intriguing to contemplate China evolving into some sort of innovative democratic experiment, combining tricameralism with all the high-tech features of deliberative democracy methods to mold a new type of political accountability as well as separation of powers. Daniel Bell, a Canadian-born professor of political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says China may be groping toward "a political model that works better than western-style democracy."
Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was quoted in 1987 as saying there would be national elections in 50 years. So China’s democratic trajectory may be ahead of schedule. In the future, President Obama should confidently engage the Chinese on this most important subject. Who knows, President Hu might have some suggestions about how to improve American democracy.