What hope is there?

Democracy in China. The Coming Crisis is a tightly argued  new book by Ci Jiwei that sets itself the dual task of analyzing China’s democracy deficit while doing so in a genuinely philosophical manner. Such an exercise in a “diagnostic” style of political philosophy is greatly more challenging than the usual abstract and normative theorizing of our political philosophers. It faces the twofold challenge of having to give a plausible account of the political reality that serves as its material and to produce substantive new philosophical insights on that basis. Ci manages both tasks with great assurance. His book is bound to become essential reading for anyone concerned with China’s political prospects but it will also prove to be of interest to  anyone who wants to think realistically about politics and political philosophy.

Ci’s major thesis is that China must undergo a process of democratization in the next few decades or face potentially disastrous instability. Ci seeks to make his case for Chinese democracy in “prudential” rather than purely “normative” terms – a “case for democracy without falling under its spell,” as he puts it, aligning himself with John Dunn’s “realistic” view of democracy.  (p. 17)  In agreement once again with Dunn, Ci holds, furthermore, that political philosophy must proceed in a diagnostic and prognostic manner rather than in abstractly theorizing terms. He quotes Dunn as saying: “History, if anything, can tell us how we have come hither; moral philosophy, perhaps, what to make of the fact that this is where we now are. But political theory has no choice but to tell us how to act, given that this is indeed where we now are.” (p. 385)

Ci, one of the leading Chinese philosophers today and a professor of philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, is the author also of  Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution (1994) and  Moral China in the Age of Reform (2014).  I have for long been an admirer of these volumes and particularly of the first with its penetrating analysis of China’s drift from Maoist utopianism to an always already implicit hedonism and its original take on philosophical ideas from Confucianism to Nietzsche.

Conjoined to these two earlier works, Democracy in China can be seen to make up the concluding volume of a trilogy that aims at  a sweeping, philosophically imbued picture of China and Chinese politics from 1949 through the coming decades. The entire work situates itself at the intersection of philosophy, history, and politics – not an easy place to occupy as we can see from the few philosophers who have done so successfully. Hegel, Nietzsche, and Foucault come, first and foremost, to mind. Ci’s book is a remarkable new contribution to this genre.

While Democracy in China may be read as a continuation of the two earlier volumes, it also treads critically different ground. With their focus on China’s recent past and immediate present, the two earlier books could draw on confirmable historical circumstances. In seeking to ground philosophical reflection on historical realities, they could thus adopt a strictly diagnostic tone of voice. The new book, with its view to the future, is inevitably forced to follow another, prognostic procedure – one that is inevitably haunted by greater uncertainty than the diagnostic one. But in what other way can a historically oriented form of political philosophy become practical and prescriptive? Neither the past nor the future are completely knowable, but we can still acquire at least a skeleton knowledge of it. With respect to the future, hesitant conjecture is, however, the closest we can come to real knowledge. Thus, we know who the successors of Mao were and more or less what they did, but we cannot know who Xi Jinping’s successor will be or what he will stand for.  Ci is fully aware of this asymmetry and acknowledges it again and again in the course of his book, but it certainly makes for a more tentative agenda than his earlier writings. History has ways of diverting its course in unexpected directions and we cannot ignore that possibility when it comes to the future of China. So, what grounds do we have for assuming that Ci’s carefully reasoned scenario will actually play out?

There is another striking uncertainty in this book and that concerns its intentions. Who are meant to be its readers? One might think that its most important readers, the ones who will have most to learn from the book and the only ones who can make practical use of its lessons, will be members of the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party. But what likelihood is there that they will come across a book written in English by a Hong Kong philosopher and published by Harvard University Press in America? And if they were to become familiar with the book, would they be ready for its lessons?

These considerations are not meant to disparage Ci’s work, but they make me think that the book’s significance should not be measured by whether it will contribute to the rise of democracy in China, that Ci’s is after all a work of philosophical reflection and that its importance will lie in how it contributes to a deepened understanding of our political and historical reality. I am inclined at this point to invoke Machiavelli’s Prince. That book, too, was intended as a guide for political rulers; but it lives on now as an account of the working of political rule.

We can say, in any case, that Ci’s book has two dimensions: one political and the other philosophical. The political dimension concerns the future of China – a matter surely of the greatest significance. Whatever China’s future may be will have an impact on the global political order. If China should eventually become a full-fledged democracy, it will be the largest democracy the world has ever seen. To manage a democratic system of that size will, no doubt, be extremely challenging. The ancient Greeks believed that democracy could truly function only in small city states. We now have mass democracies but at the price of deviating radically from the model of the original. A Chinese democracy will have to be a political system of an entirely new and as yet unforeseeable form of democracy. But whatever form it will have, a Chinese democracy will also give a boost and a new direction to democracy around the world. If China should, on the other hand become unstable, that too will have global repercussions. Ci’s reflections on the future of China  certainly make clear what is at stake.

But the significance of his work is not exhausted by this. The other dimension of his book is the philosophical one. From his thoughts about China, Ci extracts many new philosophical insights concerning, not least, our very understanding of democracy. His work serves thus also as an exemplary exposition of the diagnostic mode of political philosophy.

Ci Jiwei, Democracy in China. The Coming Crisis, Harvard University Press 2019



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