A Book Review of Rey-Ching Lu (2011) "Chinese Democracy and Elite Thinking"

Literature Review, 2012

9 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Methodological considerations

3 Findings and prognoses

4 Critical assessment

5 Conclusion

6 References

1. Introduction

China has favorable prospects for becoming a multiparty democracy; any democratic system that emerges likely will be a Confucian democracy (communal or social democracy) (Lu 2011: Preface, X).

The question whether China will or will not follow a path of democratic reforms in the near future has been repeatedly asked by many scholars over the last years, even decades. Pessimists usually tend to argue that despite considerable economic reforms, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political grasp over Chinese mainland society is growing ever tighter and stronger. (see Pei 2008, Shambaugh 2008).

Among the notorious optimists, Henry Rowen stands out for his - albeit premature - forecast of a political opening and democratic transition of Chinese society as a natural consequence of its economic liberalization and fast-growing prosperity (cf. Rowen 1996). But after decades of con­tradictory results of quantitative studies on the alleged causal relationship between economic de­velopment and democracy, deterministic perspectives should be judged with a very critical eye and many scholars today rather agree with Lipset’s statement that “[wjhether democracy succeeds or fails continues to depend significantly on the choices, behaviors, and decisions of political lead­ers and groups” (Lipset 1994: 18).

Thus, Rey-Ching Lu’s recently published book “Chinese democracy and elite thinking” is com­pletely in line with what the German political scientist Wolfgang Muno describes as the “need for qualitative analyses of [...] important actors, concepts and strategies, as well through case studies as through the comparison of few cases” (Muno 2001: 50)1. Instead of looking at economic or so­cial data on the Chinese society as a whole, Lu chooses to focus upon the ideas and convictions of a few members of the mainland’s elite, from which he draws conclusions about China’s political development in the next couple of years. The underlying assumption is that, contrary to many Western theorists’ beliefs, it is neither the middle class nor the economic liberalisation in itself that will spark democracy ‘from the bottom’, but rather the changing attitudes of the more and more globalised social elite that will eventually lead to a top-down process of political reform and liberalisation.

This short review focuses on the most important aspects of Lu’s methodological approach and line of argument. After a presentation of his methodological proceeding, the main findings and conclusions of Lu’s study will be described and discussed. Then, a critical assessment of the au­thor’s arguments will be made, also considering other scholars’ views on the issues of China’s possible democratization and the role of its elites in this process.

2. Methodological considerations

In order to assess China’s democratic development and to draw conclusions about its future, Rey- Ching Lu opts for a two-pronged methodological approach. In a first step, he resorts to a histori­ographical analysis of China’s history since the beginning of what Chinese refer to as the quru (humiliation) period in 18392, with the aim of proving the causal relationship between the "devel­opment and change of Chinese society" and "Chinese historical practice of democracy"(Lu 2011: 20). Secondly, so as to extrapolate these historical trends of Chinese society toward the next 20 years, Lu conducts 120 interviews with members of the Chinese elite, subdivided into four groups: government officials, businesspeople, media professionals and intellectuals (cf. ibid.: 21). This choice is justified with reference to the traditionally crucial role of Chinese elites in leading and educating the masses (cf. ibid.: 4) and with the assertion that significant changes in Chinese soci­ety can only be understood or foreseen through the analysis of "China's subtle political language" (ibid.: 10) and its particular, collectivist culture:

In Chinese culture, an individual does not see himself as an independent, self-seeking entity with a sub - jectivity that cannot be penetrated by any collectivity; instead, each individual sees himself as a part of various social relationships that he enjoys being a part of and is ready and willing to make contribution by devoting himself to the collective good (Lu 2011: 7).

However, from the 120 interviews conducted the author chooses to take only 18 interview cases from Shanghai into account for the present study. Lu’s justification for substantially limiting the sample is that Shanghai is the most westernized of the big cities in China and that therefore “Shanghai could best represent the future of China as a fusion of Chinese culture and Western cul­ture” (Lu 2011: 23). Yet, Lu doesn’t want Shanghai to be understood as being representative of China as a whole. Unfortunately, as the author chooses not to present any information about the other 102 interviews, any comparison between the Shanghai interviews and the overwhelmingly larger remaining part of the covered data is impossible.

3. Findings and prognoses

The first and foremost result of Lu’s study is the one quoted at the very beginning: That China will indeed follow a path of democratization within the observed period, that is to say until 2024, thanks to a cultural blend of modern Western (i.e., liberal, democratic, individualist) and tradition­al Chinese (i.e. Confucian, collectivist) norms. But Lu is even more audacious in his prognosis: From the attitudes expressed by the 18 aforementioned interviewees in Shanghai, he concludes that this process of democratization will start with the intellectual elite and then spread over the whole society (cf. Lu 2011: 143). Finally, as implied by his case selection, Lu also suggests that these developments will be sparked off in Shanghai before spreading to the rest of China. In order to shed light on the foundations of these strong theses, the thrust of Lu’s line of argument will be presented in the following paragraphs, dealing separately with the historical analysis (Chapters 2 to 5) and the presentation of the interview cases (Chapters 6 to 8).


1 „Notwendig sind qualitative Analysen von [...] wichtigen Akteuren, Konzepten und Strategien, sowohl im Einzelfall wie beim Vergleich weniger Falle.“

2 The First Opium War, which started in 1839 and ended in 1842 with the first of the so-called unequal treaties, the Treaty of Nanjing, is generally considered to be the starting point of China’s forced and troublesome modernisation process.

Excerpt out of 9 pages


A Book Review of Rey-Ching Lu (2011) "Chinese Democracy and Elite Thinking"
University of Freiburg  (Seminar für Wissenschaftliche Politik)
Hauptseminar Democracy and Development: A Comparative Asian Perspective
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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538 KB
China, Democracy, Elitism, Democratisation, Book review, Modernisation Theory, Henry Rowen, Asian values, Chinese Communist Party
Quote paper
Bertram Lang (Author), 2012, A Book Review of Rey-Ching Lu (2011) "Chinese Democracy and Elite Thinking", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/211217


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