Since Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, China has undergone profound changes, and its economic and political developments have been in the world’s attention. One subject that has attracted much attention is the prospects for democracy in China. The theme of this thesis is political participation in urban China and what implications this may have for the prospects for democracy. The theoretical framework for this analysis will be Jürgen Habermas’s theory on the growth of the public sphere and the emergence of democracy. Habermas’s theory is explicitly historically based, being deduced from the developments of 18th and 19th century Preussen, England, and France. Some parts of the theory are therefore not suited for an analysis of a context like China, which is very different from the context the theory was deduced from.
My analysis has three parts. First, I analyze if it is likely that the business stratum in China will be proponents for democracy. I found this to be unlikely because the business stratum in China is connected to the government in two ways. First, the government themselves have established a number of companies and in this way are involved in business, giving China an economy characterized by ‘bureaucratic capitalism’. Second, because close ties to the government are needed to be a successful businessman, their autonomy is weak. I also found that even if the business stratum in China had been autonomous and had been able to use this autonomy to push for democracy, they are not interested in doing so.
Second, I analyze if channels for political participation for ‘ordinary’ people in urban China provide the citizens with a possibility to push for political participation. In this chapter four limits to the political participation of urban Chinese and their ability to use the channels for political participation to push for democracy are identified. First, their political rights are under considerable normative expectations and limitations. Second, the channels are troubled by weak formalization, whereby the rules are not always adhered to but are rather applied in the way that suits the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) best. Third, the channels do not extend to the most important track of decision-making in the Chinese political system; the CCP. Fourth, the channels for political participation are troubled by cellularization, which limits the participation to a ‘cell’. The channels for political participation are mostly limited to the danwei and the Chinese urbanites therefore have small possibilities to influence politics at higher levels, or form alliances with people outside their danwei. The consequence of these four limits, according to the theory of Habermas, is that the Chinese urbanites have very limited or almost no ability to push for democracy if these limits stay in place. The conclusion of this chapter is that it is unlikely that the channels for political participation in China may be used to push for democracy.
Third, I study the relatively new institution of Homeowner committees (HOCs). In the later years, Chinese society has changed considerably, and the limits of the channels for political participation, especially related to the cellularization, are decreasing. In recent years the market economy has been developing, and people now have far more opportunities for leading a life that is less restricted to and by their danwei. To illustrate and understand these developments, I study the HOCs. I find that these committees represent a step forward in the sense that they have a relatively high level of autonomy and are able to and willing to work for the best of the residents. It seems that the HOCs have been able to ‘break free’ from the limits to political participation and be an institution for genuine political participation. The conclusion of this chapter is that the emergence of HOCs is positive and indicates a trend that may lead to more freedom and participation and possibly better prospects for democracy.
All in all, the changes China is undergoing at the time being are indeed positive, with an opening up of spaces as has been seen in the situation for the HOCs. This indicates that a bottom-up process pushing for more participation may be in the beginning and that the government is willing to let this process lead to increased the political participation. However, due to the tight grip the government, and the CCP in particular, still has and the lacking political freedoms for Chinese, this will be a very long process and it is therefore unlikely that democracy will emerge in the foreseeable future.