Democracy Made in China

This project explores the counter-intuitive idea that China is entangled in a complex experiment with a new political form that we call ‘phantom democracy’. The unfamiliar phrase has a rich genealogy, but our immediate aim is to highlight the inadequacies of several influential contemporary interpretations of Chinese politics, including the view that China is a raw instance of ‘state capitalism’ (Slavoj Žižek), or a typical case of an ‘authoritarian regime’ (Juan Linz), or as an exemplar of ‘people’s democracy’ founded upon a flourishing ‘civil society’ (Yu Keping). In our view, these interpretations fail to grasp the unusual ways in which the Chinese polity is becoming a simulacrum of the type of locally-defined democratic vision sketched in such documents as the Charter ’08 manifesto. We argue that the contemporary development of phantom democracy befuddles our inherited narratives of democratisation. China is neither straightforwardly an ‘authoritarian’ nor a ‘state capitalist regime’ nor a ‘people’s democracy’. It is undoubtedly describable as a one-party-dominated political system marked by such well-recorded dysfunctions as vast undisclosed business fiefdoms, violence, censorship, corruption and hypocrisy. Less noticed are the manifold ways in which this system is also nurturing experiments with a wide range of ‘democratic’ tools. There is some truth in the view that China is ‘the advocate and builder of democracy’ (Liu Jianfei). Some trends are obvious: the proliferating rhetoric of ‘democracy’, the constant public referencing of ‘the Taiwan model’ and the spread of village-level elections are examples. Less obvious trends include the introduction of accountability and competition mechanisms into public bureaucracy, the rise of independent ‘public opinion leaders’, the development of ‘silent contracts’ between the Party and sections of the middle class and the spreading use by Party officials of public opinion polls and democratic ‘campaign styles’.

The instrumental use by Party officials of digitally networked media as an ‘early warning device’ is especially significant. We consider the field of digital communications as the key laboratory for testing the strengths and weaknesses and possible unintended consequences of phantom democracy. Using concepts such as ‘power as shared weakness’ and ‘networked citizens’, we analyse the ways in which online media increasingly shape not only the economy but also the prevailing power and conflict dynamics between state and citizens. We show why the growing use of the Internet in China’s social, economic and political structures exposes the Party to unforeseen weaknesses that are increasingly exploited by citizens, used by them to contest and restrain its power monopoly; and we consider the possibility that this citizen resistance to publicly unaccountable power will determine the fate of phantom democracy.

“China Carnival, Tiananmen” (2007)