Today is 1st October, the National Day of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This year is also the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, which in celebrations in July, was marked by a 90 minute speech by the Party’s General Secretary Hu JinTao.
Perhaps more significantly, this year is the 100th anniversary of the XinHai revolution, that had begun with the Wuchang uprising on 10 Oct and led to the abdication of the last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.
Dr Sun Yat-Sen, hailed by all as the father of democracy in China, had not himself taken part directly in the uprising in 1911. He was travelling in the United States at the time, seeking financial support from overseas Chinese. Apparently he only found out about the uprising from reading a newspaper report.
However, were he to view developments in China today, I wonder if he would be proud of China’s achievements, or frustrated by the pace of change. How far have the Chinese people come in the last 100 years on the road to democracy?
At a lunchtime fringe meeting during the Lib Dem Autumn Conference hosted by the Chinese Embassy (an event so packed that many were turned away), Ambassador Liu Xiaoming touched on the question of democracy in China. Chaired by Lord Tim Clement-Jones and with Justice Minister, Lord Tom McNally also on the Panel, the fringe was entitled ‘Focus on China’.
Ambassador Liu went straight into tackling issues of concern to many liberals and reflected by western media: from the detention of dissidents, to China’s military build up, to the competition for and creation of jobs inside and outside of China. On democracy, he mentioned the introduction of the ballot at the grass roots village level.
As a matter of interest, this subject has been well researched by former diplomat and well known China watcher, Dr Kerry Brown. According to Dr Brown in his book Ballot Box China, since 1988 600,000 villages have held almost a million elections and elected up to three million local officials.
Though village elections have led to conflict in some cases and have been seen as rigged in others, it is still an introduction of the concept of one man one vote to villagers and their right to choose their leaders. Will it in time extend to elections in towns and cities?
Both Premier Wen Jia Bao and President Hu Jin Tao have spoken of the importance of the rule of law for China and hinted at future political reform. There will, however, soon be a change at the top with the taking over of the reins by the so-called 5th generation leaders such as Xi JinPing in 2012.
I have asked my Chinese friends and associates what they expect will follow the hand over. Few if any expect a change in the direction of travel. The priorities are clearly continued economic growth, political stability and employment for the young. Other things will have to wait, after all they have waited 100 years, what is another 10 or more?
Merlene Emerson is Chair, Chinese Liberal Democrats and a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Candidate
Editor’s note: further articles on this subject are available on the University of British Columbia’s Asia Pacific Memo website here which also lists Merlene’s post.