Suppressed Democracy in China: Theoretical Rationalisation using a Cosmopolitan Methodology


Wednesday, 09 February 2011 09:49

Chinese_flag_The intention of this work is to explain theoretically that democracy logically exists in China, despite the statements to the contrary by China’s ruling party. We will have to look at several recent developments in social and political theory to fully understand my point. The first involves recent findings in the historical analysis of democracy from thinkers like Keane (2009), Isakhan and Stockwell (2011). The second deals with cosmopolitan theory and 2nd modernity, or from the works of David Held (2003), Ulrich Beck and Edgar Grande (2010) respectively. Finally, the third is a recent work of mine titled “Democratic Theory and Theoretical Physics” (2010).

We should take into consideration that Beck and Grande’s work, Keane’s work, Isakhan and Stockwell’s, and my own, are very recent. Certainly they have gone through extensive and rigorous peer-reviews, editorial scrutiny, and at least in my case, substantial rethinking. I personally believe Beck and Grande’s work to be an instant mark of genius and fully praise their recommendation that we must take a “cosmopolitan turn in social and political theory” (Beck and Grande, 2010: 410) by implementing a “cosmopolitan methodology” in our research. Similarly, John Keane’s efforts in Life and Death have made an undeniable contribution to how we understand democracy: namely that it is not from the “West,” that it was not invented by the Athenians (that particular polity practiced a style of democracy), and that it is part of a diverse range of human histories. It is reasoned that Isakhan and Stockwell’s edited volume Secret History will make a similar contribution. I find it awkward to try and create a statement of such nature concerning my work. That I shall, I think rightly, leave to my peers and colleagues to determine.

Just as previously stipulated, we have come to understand democracy in a way starkly different to how we are typically educated about the subject. It is not Athenian, it is not American, it is not European, it was practiced by the Mycenaeans approximately 1500 years before Athens broke its despotic tyrants, it was practiced in North Africa, Moorish Spain, throughout the Middle East, during the Ottoman Empire, in pre-colonial India, by many indigenous cultures from South America to the South Pacific, and it was certainly prevalent throughout history dispelling such myths as the “dark ages.” Perhaps most importantly in the interests of this article, evidence suggests a form of democracy was practiced by many Chinese pluralities historically and prior to the imposition of Western dominance, Chinese communism, and Chinese “consumer-socialism.”

A narrative that begins in the late nineteenth century, focuses on China’s failed ‘struggles for democracy’ and documents compromises, repression and futile strivings is a narrative that bypasses a rich, vibrant history of Chinese democracies, which have deep historical roots and owe nothing to Western models. Such democracies are to be found in ancient Chinese philosophies, which helped to shape both elite and folk political cultures; in education theory and practice in Confucian China, including the ‘tradition of remonstrance’; and in the arena of local self-government – both the elitist discourse on the subject and the communitarian institutions premised on self-government. (Keating, 2011: 61)

Well, now that is certainly a wonderful change of tune. Reason continues to triumph! Keating finishes by sharing that:

These democracies were invariably immobilized or driven underground by despotism, particularly when despotism was exercised violently. But they survive today as living traditions and are becoming increasingly visible in the spheres of citizen action that constitute an expanding civil society in twenty-first-century China. (Keating, 2011: 61)

But this statement by Keating is open to attack by anti-democratic theorists who might find his parameters for democracy to be overly subjective or presumptuous. This is certainly a problem in democratic theory. However, my work might, in whatever small way, be able to assist in this regard. In “Democratic Theory and Theoretical Physics” I tried to show that we might be able to apply the same reasoning physicists use to develop scientific theorems for social structures like democracy.

To be succinct, I collected the literature identifying 40 different types of democracy. I then applied three separate empirical analyses and several qualitative analyses on this body of literature (or my data) and came to the conclusion that all of these types of democracies had certain things in common. Using Charmaz’s (2006) grounded theory analysis methodology, I reasoned that “basic” democracy or perhaps just “democracy” is a citizenry expressing its sovereignty through the building of institutions based on how the citizenry conceptualises equality, law, communication and the selection of officials.

In a different work, I have shown that this theory of “basic democracy” is compatible with cosmopolitan theory and 2nd Modernity. This is the case because I unknowingly used a cosmopolitan methodology which was certainly surprising. In my doctoral thesis (see I tried to explain my methodology through a synthesis of thinkers from Socrates, Nietzsche, Popper, Raulston Saul, and Aristotle. Thankfully Beck and Grande explained in one paragraph what I tried to do in a chapter or so.

Cosmopolitan methodology requires the analyst to use sources, in the very least, from every major global region, from as many strata of social, political and economic bodies, and most importantly, to understand that we are seeking to observe a global or cosmopolitan reality. This is of central importance because much previous research has the analyst using a localized, non-cosmopolitan, perspective and then trying to use that perspective to explain global phenomena: which is theoretically confounding.

So if we consider the analyses of these 40 different types of democracy, with the cosmopolitan methodology I happened to unknowingly use, we can think of democracy as four tea cups resting on a plate. The plate signifies the citizenry and its sovereignty. But beyond that, we do not know what the plate looks like. If we observed the citizenry and their sovereignty in China we would begin to know what this plate looks like. And it is the same for the tea-cups. They signify equality, communication, law, and the selection of officials. We understand the constructs, but we must observe the constructs to “fill” the teacups. How do the diverse peoples of China conceptualise equality? How do they communicate? How do they conceptualise law and what are their expectations of laws? How do they select their leaders and why? Answering these questions will give us an indication not only of the state of democracy (how suppressed it is) in China but what types of democracy might emerge if these parameters are allowed to be defined by the peoples of China.

What this means for China is that democracy could very well be a part of its diverse peoples’ history. If we take into account the research of Benjamin Isakhan (2011a), he shared that democracy is part of our humanstory, that it is something (like despotism) that we most likely evolved with. We are starting to see that this perspective might be a fact in natural science through the works of biologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and archaeologists. An increasing number of evidence is being brought forward from these areas which stipulate, for example, that ants and bees are capable of making collective decisions; that there is a sense of equality, law (group norms), communication, and leadership in certain primate societies.

Swiftly and suddenly we are seeing a democracy never before known: one that all people have a heritage with which manifests in a variety of different forms based on these six parameters. This has large implications because it for one dispels the authority certain hegemonic powers have been trying to maintain: namely that democracy is a Western affair and is dependent on advanced economic criteria and so forth. I would like to say that such is probably and perhaps most definitely, bollocks. Yes, it is true that a certain degree of economic development is necessary to give individuals the freedom from destitution, poverty, violence and the struggle for existence that takes away the time to think about basic democratic development. But implementing advanced economic reform or democracy-promoting institutions that are normative in the West will develop a certain typology of democracy (not democracy itself) in a non-Western country: one that is potentially harmful or incompatible with a non-Western society.

To finish, we should consider the position that China’s ruling power started taking, especially during the Liu Xiaobo affair. We see on the English website for The People’s Republic of China (, use the “search” function and type in “democracy”) that the usual position of the government is to claim China to be developing or having a “socialist democracy.” That is problematic. For one, it is well argued in the extant literature that China’s form of socialism contrasts rather dramatically with the socialism that came out of Marxist theory. So it is not actual socialism. And when we consider the parameters I came to in the theory of “basic democracy” we see that the party suppresses every parameter. So it cannot be democratic either. And should we analyse if the party’s representatives used a cosmopolitan methodology to reach this conclusion, it is fairly certain that they have not. So their position is not backed by a heterogeneous global logic. Thus, we come to the logical conclusion that the ruling party in China is authoritarian, if not for the simple fact that there are no rulers in democracies (see Keane, 2009, for further explanation).

There is democracy in China, albeit in a suppressed form. There is democracy in China’s history, albeit unacknowledged by the ruling power. And, most importantly, there is such a thing as Chinese democracy only that it has nothing to do with the ruling party, communism, socialism, or materialistic consumerism. It must come from the wonderfully diverse population of that beautiful country, through peaceful dialogue. We can proceed firstly with an all-inclusive referendum asking the people of China if they wish to govern themselves. That process can continue until a normative understanding is reached and an interim government formed. We might then have the opportunity, like that in the Southern Sudan (if things go well), to develop a constitution based, perhaps, on the parameters of basic democracy, on what Chinese citizens consider their human rights to be, and what good governance is, which is something that has not happened in human history.

I say that China should take heart from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Yemen and potentially several other countries to oppose despotism and to seek the freedom that only a Chinese democracy can give them.


Dr. Jean-Paul Gagnon is a social and political theorist with a Ph.D. in political science. He completed his doctorate at the Queensland University of Technology under the aegis of Australia’s prestigious Endeavour Award. This article is derived from a working paper titled “A Late Modernist Consideration of Democracy.”

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN

This material is available for republication as long as reprints include verbatim copy of the article in its entirety, respecting its integrity. Reprints must cite the author and CESRAN as the original source including a “live link” to the article. Thank you!



Beck, Ulrich., and Grande, Edgar. (2010). “Varieties of Second Modernity.” British Journal of Sociology. 61: 1468-4446.


Gagnon, Jean-Paul. (2010). “Democratic Theory and Theoretical Physics.” Taiwan Journal of Democracy,6(2): 1-22.


Held, David. (2003). Cosmopolitanism: A Defence. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Isakhan, Ben., and Stockwell, Stephen. (eds). (2011). The Secret History of Democracy. London: Plagrave MacMillan.

Isakhan, Ben: Interviewed by: Gagnon, Jean-Paul. (2011a). “An Interview with Dr. Ben Isakhan: On the Alternative Histories of Democracy.” Journal of Democratic Theory, 1(1).

Keane, John. (2009). The Life and Death of Democracy. London: Simon and Schuster.

Keating, P. (2011). “Digging for Democracy in China.” In: Ben Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell (eds) The Secret History of Democracy.” London: Plagrave MacMillan.


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