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For Baogang He, influence of authoritative deliberation in China is underestimated

By Patrick Taylor Smith on November 15, 2013

Imagine that an authoritarian and unelected government becomes interested in reforming its healthcare system. Via online fora and letter writing, they solicit—and receive—thousands of comments from their citizens. In response, the ruling one-party government makes hundreds of revisions to their proposed plan. Is this the beginnings of a genuine democracy and empowered citizenry? Or is it merely a fig leaf, political theater used to legitimate an autocracy?

Can deliberation about political issues of importance flourish within and influence authoritarian states? If there is robust political deliberation within authoritarian regimes, what does this say about the long-term prospects for reform and democratization?

In the 2013 Wesson Lectures, Baogang He argues that theorists have unprofitably viewed democratic forms of political deliberation as the only ones worthy of study. As a result, Professor He argues, the amount, extent, and influence of deliberation is greatly underestimated, especially in modern China. Professor He further suggests that these deliberative structures, particular in cities and at the local level, can serve as conduits for political reform and democratization.

At the moment, these connections remain somewhat speculative. Still, He’s lectures represent an important new direction in research about political deliberation and describe a new pathway for Chinese democratization.

“An increasing number of Chinese intellectuals see the development of deliberative processes within authoritarian institutions as a pathway to democracy,” He writes. “Some hold that democratization could develop from within one-party rule, if the kinds, level, and density of reforms alter its character in ways that produce the functional effects of democracy.”

If this trajectory were to materialize, He goes on, it would be unique: “We know of no examples of regime democratization as a consequence of progress

ively institutionalized deliberation.”


Professor He began his analysis of authoritarian deliberation by examining the long Chinese tradition of ‘remonstration,’ founded in Confucian political thought. Court officials attempted, andfrequently succeeded, in influencing the Emperor to alter his policy in order to serve the common good. There are three key elements to these remonstrations. They must occur in public, they must appeal to the reason, and they must aim at the good of all. This, He suggests, is political deliberation—the use of a ‘heart to heart’ talk in order to persuade and influence—without democracy.

He then argues that this kind of non-democratic deliberation, suitably adapted to modernity, is common in today’s China. The Chinese Communist Party is undeniably authoritarian, jailing dissidents and prohibiting open political discussion of any reforms that might weaken its control. Yet, local governance has increasingly become characterized by public, deliberative institutions.

In 2004, there were over 400,000 village level meetings that contained deliberative elements. For example, a township in Wenling City used deliberative polling to create a representative body of citizens who were given the authority to select which municipal projects received funding and resources. These new policies, He suggests, represent the beginnings of an empowered deliberation.

Political Implications

Even if one grants that there is widespread deliberation in authoritarian China, what are the political implications of that deliberation? He argues that there two possibilities. First, deliberation might pacify the citizenry by creating a false sense of participation and legitimacy. Second, these deliberative institutions and activities might serve as vehicles for reform and democratization.

According to He, the second path should be taken seriously. Authoritarian deliberation is unstable, serving as a kind of Trojan Horse for future democratization. Among various mechanisms for democratization, He highlighted how deliberation pressures the government to be open with information. After all, it is difficult to have an explicit policy of limiting the availability of information while adopting the public policy that citizens should be able to provide input on issues of political import.  

Second, legitimate deliberation appears to imply greater inclusion. Once we grant the opinions of the people are important in a deliberative sense, then there is pressure to include the opinions of those who will be affected. In fact, there have already been cases where Chinese citizens have rejected deliberative institutions that fail that critera. He describes a case where taxi drivers in Beijing refused to accept a decision concerning fees until representatives from their community were included in the deliberation.

Finally, deliberative inclusion leads to voting as it becomes harder and harder to exclude the people from having control over policies that they are routinely asked to consider and evaluate. Thus, it is unsurprising, He suggests, that we are seeing a greater emphasis on elections and referendums in these local deliberations. So, He argues that deliberation leads to greater inclusion that, in turn, leads to a greater demand for democratic control. 

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Patrick Taylor Smith received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Washington-Seattle in 2013. His research interests are mainly found in social and political philosophy, with a more specific focus on global issues. While at Stanford, he will be working on turning his dissertation, which investigates whether and how global governance institutions may rightfully exercise coercive power over states or their citizens, into a book. His other research interests include intergenerational justice with a particular emphasis on climate change, republican accounts of freedom, the ethical issues arising with regard to immigration and refugees, and Kantian constructivism in metaethics.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's student-driven news portal. We review events and speakers and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. Undergraduate Stanford students write the articles and the Center for Ethics in Society edits and produces the content so that the student writers learn to translate academic subject matter into accessible terms and strengthen the clarity and precision of their writing.