March 12th, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Democracy in China?

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

You rarely hear the words "China" and "election" in the same breath. Unlike the U.S., France, or Egypt - all of which do have elections coming up - China has a "leadership transition" this year.  This is a planned event where handpicked individuals are promoted up.

But there were real elections in China last week - of the people and by the people. There was a democratic vote with real ballots, real candidates, and real, clean results.

Welcome to Wukan. It's a small fishing village in South-East China, just a few hundred miles from Hong Kong. The story began a few months ago, when the villagers of Wukan protested against a "land grab".

Those are not so uncommon in China - corrupt officials often snatch privately held agricultural plots and sell them to developers for high prices. Protests are not uncommon, either. It is said that tens of thousands of demonstrations - just like this one in Wukan - have taken place in China every year. Two-thirds of those are because of land disputes.

So what made Wukan different?

For one, the people didn't give up. They were remarkably organized in holding noisy mass rallies and they drove out the local leaders who were complicit in the "land grabs".

But what is unusual here is the response. The provincial government, led by Party Secretary Wang Yang, conceded to the villagers' demands. On his call, the province returned some of the disputed farmland, released detained activists and allowed the villagers to hold their own elections.

All that led to scenes last week of 6,000 villagers voting in an organized fashion. The media, both local and Western, were allowed full access. And the main winners were the same protestors who led the rebellion.

So democracy is possible in China.

Wukan is now being talked of as a model for other Chinese villages. The theory goes that a "Wukan Effect" will sweep the country and create more uprisings, making it harder for the government to crack down. That, in turn, will lead to a larger democratic movement at the highest levels of government.

I 'm not sure that's going to happen anytime soon in China. For every Wukan, there is a Tibet. China's leaders know how to brandish an iron fist just as they know how to use a velvet glove.

The key here is to understand the way China functions. Villages (where rebellions are most likely) fall under the rule of provincial leaders. These leaders are immensely powerful, and with great levels of autonomy. So they make their own independent decisions on a case-by-case basis. But the idea that central command in Beijing would allow broader national moves towards democracy is probably a fallacy.  Try protesting at Tiananmen Square in central Beijing and you'll see for yourself.

There is one larger potential trend here. Watch China's leadership transition later this year very closely. The top posts seem to be decided. But if reform-minded provincial leaders - like Wang Yang - make the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (the group that actually runs China), then perhaps there may be a shift towards some looser controls.

Wukan is a heartening story. But remember one thing: Change in today's China is rarely bottom-up and sweeping in nature. If there's going to be change, for now it's going be incremental and it will come from the top down.

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Also, for more What in the World? pieces, click here.


soundoff (135 Responses)
  1. Tahir

    Long live democracy

    March 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  2. Tahir

    A man is deported from Germany immediately after his speech because he spoke against becoming Gay and Lesbian. What an example of European freedom and democracy.Long live Chinese leaders.

    March 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
    • Barry G.

      Comrade Tahir,

      A good leader puts the needs and interests of the people, before their own.

      An evil leader lives in comfort and pleasure, while the people live in hunger and want.

      What kind of leader do you want, Comrade Tahir?

      March 12, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
      • Maersk

        kwok head, your uncle puts his needs before what your azz needs. He certainly does not come just because you want to have a mouthful.

        March 12, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  3. eroteme

    We surely like to counsel China how to govern their country. Let's see how long have we been governing ours compared to how long they have been governing theirs. Do they have us by a few thousand years and we only have a couple of hundred with a much lessr population. But then we do indeed like to counsel other countries, telling many of them they must govern like we do. I am one who believes we do not do such a great job ouselves.

    March 12, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply
    • fdasasdf

      You don't write like a native English speaker. What is your first language?

      March 13, 2012 at 12:08 am | Reply
    • cWhatsNew

      I lived in both countries. I agree that US has much of a shorter history. But I do think US offers a lot for China to learn. Vice Versa for US to learn from China.

      March 13, 2012 at 9:49 am | Reply
  4. tcaros

    Zakaria: Some intelligence in head?

    March 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  5. Blessed Geek

    Romulans don't have elections. Long live the Romulan Empire.

    March 12, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  6. Marty

    The only Chinese Democracy we'll ever see is the latest Guns N' Roses cd.

    March 12, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Reply
  7. Ashok

    I wish world should help Tibet to free them from China.

    March 12, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      kwok head, do you realize the word "Tibet" is a Chinese pronunciation referring to the province? So those Tibetans such as Dalying Lama who rely on zucking uncle Sam's kwok for a living should call themselves something else other than Tibetans.

      March 12, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Reply
      • Amarjyoti Acharya

        Thanks for the update. I have been wondering myself since not much information is available about the province of Tibet and its story of becoming a global issue for many except for a novel by some escaped German soldiers during the Second World War. Popular imagination is fed more by frenzied rumours than informed views. In many parts of the world, such frenzied rumours go for intelligence too and even as the grounds for conducting state policy. The notion of Buddhism – as even naively understood by me – forecloses violence or the aim of the human life as aspiring for certain material goals, even. Of course, it remains a naive impression of mine and the Buddhists can always cite literature that has Gautama Buddha speak like Chanakya -a political thinker preceding Jesus Christ – or even Krsihna's exposition in the Bhagvat Geetam, of the Indic mythology.

        March 13, 2012 at 3:38 am |
    • Gods don't preach religion

      Free Kashmir first

      March 13, 2012 at 3:14 am | Reply
  8. Bob Knippel

    Zakaria: American involvement with China on any level bothers me deeply, but for one reason only: Chinese Communism. There is pretty much nothing of merit in that style of government, yet the Chinese continue to keep ordinary citizens from enjoying personal liberties and self determination through democracy, which I find quite offensive. I hope that someday, during my lifetime, Chinese citizens somehow find a way to throw the chains of that government onto the trash heap of history, but in spite of this limited example of Chinese democracy, I doubt very much that freedom and democracy will get far in China anytime soon.

    March 12, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      Bobby the American kwok head, you definitely sound like another U.S. government employee who's been zucking his uncle's dirty kwok for a living. I suggest that you look yourself in the mirror. If you don't have a mirror, you can get yourself a bucket of water. If you don't have water, you can save your urine in the bucket to see your reflection. Here in the U.S., a fool was able to steal the presidency once, started two wars that killed so many people, tripled the national deficit and still got reelected and you call that democracy? It is more like a demo-of-crazy. The only things that are still growing here in America are unemployment, national deficit, and prison population. How dare you lecture the Chinese? You should take a course (an intercourse) with your uncle and let him lecture your azz by bending over instead.
      By the way, you need to stop hanging around your uncle's crotch and take a trip to China. Take a look and see if the Chinese are living any differently than you who is full of BS.

      March 12, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Reply
      • M Houston

        "The only things that are still growing here in America are unemployment, national deficit, and prison population."
        Maersk , you piece of Chinese excrement, crawl further on down the toilet bowl you live in. I'll give the Chinese
        this much: they teach their turds to talk...

        March 14, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  9. Gods don't preach religion

    Democracy is defined differently in different places and in different times. So typical of our media, please stop making us poke our nose into others affairs. This has not even helped us ameliorate our own situation.

    March 13, 2012 at 2:43 am | Reply
  10. Amarjyoti Acharya

    Now between a medieval crusading "christian west" wearing the garb of democracy (quite hilarious, is it not?) and conducting soft pogroms and a fast modernizing and secular China, which one sounds better? They may not yet have liberal democracy, but they definitely do not have any medieval crusade either. They are honest about their democracy and about being a modern and developed state. Given headlines that go: "Who owns the USA? Hint: It is not China" is quite a good start for reflection since your interview with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore as the editor of Foreign Affairs dear Zakaria. 21st century – I guess that a single-party democracy of a modern China that is honest about its agenda is much better than the cloak-dagger medieval democracies (what an irony) that much of the "west" represents!

    March 13, 2012 at 3:09 am | Reply
  11. pmcdonald

    I sometimes think Zacharia ought to go to China and have a look around. He doesn't seem to know much more about it than any armchair observer in America. i.e. not much. Go have a look. At local level there are plenty of elections in China.

    March 13, 2012 at 5:19 am | Reply
    • fdasasdf

      Who is allowed to vote in local elections?

      March 13, 2012 at 6:31 am | Reply
    • M Houston

      And how many of the people elected in those local elections are NOT members of the CCP? Is it "democracy" when the only choice you have is which CCP face you want to make your decisions? Would Ai Wei Wei be allowed to run run for
      "political" office? I doubt it...China is a dictatorship by committee.

      March 14, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  12. Malfean

    China's been moving towards Democracy for decades. They've been doing it since before Tinnamen Square, they just go about it in a much smarter fashion. They didn't want a Soviet-Style breakup, so they drew down a 50 (guess) year plan. They're practically Democratic now, they're certainly not communist. If they were, Hong Kong wouldn't be anything like it is currently. Chinese are not stupid, they know what needs to be done and how to do it. They didn't survive 4,000 years to screw up in 2.

    March 13, 2012 at 8:05 am | Reply
    • cWhatsNew

      Wise!

      March 13, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
      • M Houston

        China will never arrive at "democracy" for as long as the CCP is in total control of governance. They'll only have a bad copy of a democracy. Just another bad Chinese Copy of something.

        March 14, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • eastern

      such a greaster insight.

      March 14, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  13. FK

    1 dictator = 200+ dictators in a democratic government where they only serve their donors.

    March 14, 2012 at 1:46 am | Reply
    • Kaptan

      16a12d35105hi!,I really like your wiritng very a lot! share we keep in touch more approximately your post on AOL? I need a specialist in this house to solve my problem. Maybe that's you! Having a look ahead to peer you. 187

      April 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  14. Tahir

    Mr.Zakaria
    You should write next article "Democracy at United Nations". The article should begin with "You rarely hear the words "UN" and "Democracy". Five mad nations deciding about a dispute between other two nations.

    March 14, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
    • M Houston

      Irananian, are you, Tahir? No? Perhaps Syrian.

      March 14, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  15. M Houston

    "On his call, the province returned some of the disputed farmland, released detained activists and allowed the villagers to hold their own elections." This guy, probably a CCP official of some sort, "allowed" an election!? He ALLOWED an election? If China wanted to be "democratic" Chinese LAW would have demanded an election! In China democracy will be practiced when and where the CCP says it will. And that fact alone prevents (and will prevent in the future)
    China from being a free democracy.

    March 14, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  16. M Houston

    Ignore China's barking dog, Maersk! He monitors all online China news and barks at everyone who comments.
    He's one sick puppy...

    March 14, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  17. A Chinese

    China needs political Reform

    During the last 4 decades, China no doubt has achieved great economic success. It is the 2nd largest economy in the world, while by the end of 1970's China was literaly bankrupt.

    Politically, however, it is no better than 1980s, when the country just decided to open up and reform, only at that time, reform means both economical and political. Today political reform is a taboo. Anyone dare to publicly discuss it can be locked up like Liu Xiaobo. Until now I realize that fundmentaly China is no different than North Korea where the governement hold its people as slave.

    Earlier this month, premier Wen Jiabao says that without political reform it is without possibility that China could have another culture revolution. It is sad but true, because the CCP has been full of corruption. The officials are semi-openly grab money for their own good,government took too much wealth from society leaving poor people without healthcare and decent job payment. The widening gap between rich and poor is easily manipulated with ambitious politicains such as Bo Xilai. We are glad to see that he was removed from his office, but without the ensurance of a reliable system, such victory is short and unpredictable.

    Legal system is never independent and law is served for the government and party instead of people. Last month, the official asks the lawyer to take the oath, that he must be loyal to the party. The police should be loyal to the party, the army should loyal party, of cause the government should loyal to the party. Who is loayal to the people?

    If China hope to have a good future, it must allow freedom of speach, allow the newspaper to express ideas freely, adopt democratic system which should allow multi-party to contest for the power and let the people choose their leader. Only in this way, the poeple of China can truly have the freedom as the rest of the world.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:14 am | Reply
  18. Hamidu

    se piacerebbero pure a me RPG "vecchio stmpao", questi sono giapponesi e non si pu pretendere che facciano MMORPG seguendo le culture medievali tipiche del nostro continente. Sarebbe come mangiare "polenta e osei" cucinati da un Siciliano >.<

    April 23, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Reply
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