China Power

What Happened to China’s Liberals?

Missteps by the world’s democracies have forced China’s closeted liberals to lay low.

What Happened to China’s Liberals?
Credit: Scottish Independence sign image via EQRoy /

Do liberals still exist in China? In the past, there were fond speculations that figures like former premier Wen Jiabao held covert liberal tendencies. Before Wen, similar rumors circulated about former Politburo member Qiao Shi in the 1990s. In the Chinese context, being a “liberal” is often conflated with being a “reformer.” One of the issues with the Xi period, however, is that everyone is now a “reformist.” In this context, what does a word like “liberal” actually mean?

If “liberal” is meant to indicate someone supportive of the adoption of Western political models, then this space has been well trampled on. From the late Hu Jintao period, documents surfaced categorically spelling out why China would not adopt a western-style bicameral parliamentary systems, pursue federal models for the provinces, or allow multi-party competition for power. In early September, Xi Jinping only added the nail to the coffin of liberalism along these lines in China. Speaking at a meeting marking the 60th anniversary of the National People’s Congress, Xi said that western models have no relevance for China’s current conditions and will not be used. It seems pointed enough to give this sort of message in front of a group loosely called China’s parliamentarians — the core people who were once meant to slowly introduce more participation in decision making into the country.

If anything might reaffirm the Chinese current political elite’s distaste for liberal politics following the Western model, the current referendum on Scottish independence in the U.K. neatly fits the bill.  A Chinese politician first of all has to work out how a country that was once globally powerful and important, and which still ranks among the world’s top economies, has seemingly embarked on a process of self-cannibalization. Why would the U.K. freely hold a referendum in which one single question is bluntly asked, giving the central government no room for maneuverability if the final result is too close to be decisive?  Most perplexing of all for Chinese politicians is the fact that referendum cannot add to the U.K.’s territory but risks reducing it by allowing secession.

For Chinese leaders, the notion of an elected national leader allowing the country to flirt with fragmentation is probably definitive proof that democracy run along these lines produces perverse outcomes. For Beijing, the grim aggression of land-hungry Russian President Vladimir Putin with his de facto annexation of Crimea makes more sense, even though the geopolitical instability Putin has caused doesn’t go down entirely well in Beijing. Adding territory makes sense. Losing it by accident is at best incompetence, and at worse treachery.

Even if the Scottish don’t vote for independence on September 18, Cameron may well best even this potential disaster in Chinese eyes by carrying out another plebiscite in two years’ time regarding the U.K.’s continuing membership in the European Union. If the Scots do vote to go, and the EU membership referendum promised in 2017 leads to what remains of Britain leaving that too,  then an ancient democracy will have reduced its size, extent, and influence in a little over 26 months, all thanks to leaders following popular will rather than actually trying to shape and manage public opinion.

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Cases like this ensure that secretly open-minded liberals in China are unlikely to have an easy time of it in the near future. Whatever their hearts might tell them, looking at the chaos democratically-elected Cameron seems determined to visit on the U.K. speaks eloquently enough to their heads. The lack of control they see in Western democracies at the moment means that every bone in their risk-averse bodies tells them that a democratic China lies many decades away. China needs a better system of governance, but the current parlous state of democracy in many countries is offering a very unpersuasive advertisement at the moment.