As free market ideas have spread across the world, liberal democracy has often travelled in its wake. But for the authorities in Beijing there is nothing inexorable about liberal democracy. One of the most surprising features of Chinese intellectual life is the way that "democracy" intellectuals who demanded elections in the 1980s and 1990s have changed their positions on political reform.
Yu Keping is like the Zhang Weiying of political reform. He is a rising star and an informal adviser to President Hu Jintao. He runs an institute that is part university, part think tank, part management consultancy for government reform. When he talks about the country"s political future, he often draws a direct analogy with the economic realm. When I last met him in Beijing, he told me that overnight political reform would be as damaging to China as economic "shock therapy." Instead, he has promoted the idea of democracy gradually working its way up from successful grassroots experiments. He hopes that by promoting democracy first within the Communist party, it will then spread to the rest of society. Just as the coastal regions were allowed to "get rich first," Yu Keping thinks that party members should "get democracy first" by having internal party elections.
Where the coastal regions benefited from natural economic advantages such as proximity to Hong Kong, the Cantonese language and transport links, Yu Keping sees advantages for party members¡ªsuch as their high levels of education and articulacy¡ªwhich make them into a natural democratic vanguard. What is more, he can point to examples of this happening. At his suggestion, in 2006 I visited a county in Sichuan province called Pinchang that has allowed party members to vote for the bosses of township parties. In the long run, democracy could be extended to the upper echelons of the party, including competitive elections for the most senior posts. The logical conclusion of his ideas on inner party democracy would be for the Communist party to split into different factions that competed on ideological slates for support. It is possible to imagine informal new left and new right groupings one day even becoming formal parties within the party. If the Communist party were a country, its 70m members would make it bigger than Britain. And yet it is hard to imagine the remote, impoverished county of Pinchang becoming a model for the gleaming metropolises of Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen. So far, none of the other 2,860 counties of China has followed its lead.
Many intellectuals in China are starting to question the utility of elections. Pan Wei, a rising star at Beijing University, castigated me at our first meeting for paying too much attention to the experiments in grassroots democracy. "The Sichuan experiment will go nowhere," he said. "The local leaders have their personal political goal: they want to make their names known. But the experiment has not succeeded. In fact, Sichuan is the place with the highest number of mass protests. Very few other places want to emulate it."
Chinese thinkers argue that all developed democracies are facing a political crisis: turnout in elections is falling, faith in political leaders has declined, parties are losing members and populism is on the rise. They study the ways that western leaders are going over the heads of political parties and pioneering new techniques to reach the people such as referendums, opinion surveys or "citizens" juries." The west still has multi-party elections as a central part of the political process, but has supplemented them with new types of deliberation. China, according to the new political thinkers, will do things the other way around: using elections in the margins but making public consultations, expert meetings and surveys a central part of decision-making. This idea was described pithily by Fang Ning, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He compared democracy in the west to a fixed-menu restaurant where customers can select the identity of their chef, but have no say in what dishes he chooses to cook for them. Chinese democracy, on the other hand, always involves the same chef¡ªthe Communist party¡ªbut the policy dishes which are served up can be chosen "隆搂隆猫 la carte."
Chongqing is a municipality of 30m that few people in the west have heard of. It nestles in the hills at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialin Jiang rivers and it is trying to become a living laboratory for the ideas of intellectuals like Pan Wei and Fang Ning. The city"s government has made all significant rulings subject to public hearings¡ªin person, on television and on the internet. The authorities are proudest of the hearings on ticket prices for the light railway, which saw fares reduced from 15 to just 2 yuan (about 14p). This experiment is being emulated in other cities around China. But an even more interesting experiment was carried out in the small township of Zeguo in Wenling City¡ªit used a novel technique of "deliberative polling" to decide on major spending decisions. The brainchild of a Stanford political scientist called James Fishkin, it harks back to an Athenian ideal of democracy (see "The thinking voter," Prospect May 2004). It involves randomly selecting a sample of the population and involving them in a consultation process with experts, before asking them to vote on issues. Zeguo used this technique to decide how to spend its 40m yuan (£2.87m) public works budget. So far the experiment has been a one-off but Fishkin and the Chinese political scientist He Baogang believe that "deliberative democracy" could be a template for political reform.
The authorities certainly seem willing to experiment with all kinds of political innovations. In Zeguo, they have even introduced a form of government by focus group. But the main criterion guiding political reform seems to be that it must not threaten the Communist party"s monopoly on power. Can a more responsive form of authoritarianism evolve into a legitimate and stable form of government?