Summer 2017

Authoritarian Deliberation in China

Baogang He and Mark E. Warren

Authoritarian rule in China increasingly involves a wide variety of deliberative practices. These practices combine authoritarian command with deliberative influence, producing the apparent anomaly of authoritarian deliberation. Although deliberation and democracy are usually found together, they are distinct phenomena. Democracy involves the inclusion of individuals in matters that affect them through distributions of empowerments like votes and rights. Deliberation is the kind of communication that involves persuasion-based influence. Combinations of command-based power and deliberative influence – like authoritarian deliberation – are now pervading Chinese politics, likely a consequence of the failures of command authoritarianism under the conditions of complexity and pluralism produced by market-oriented development. The concept of authoritarian deliberation frames two possible trajectories of political development in China. One possibility is that the increasing use of deliberative practices stabilizes and strengthens authoritarian rule. An alternative possibility is that deliberative practices serve as a leading edge of democratization.

BAOGANG HE is the Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in International Relations at Deakin University, Australia. He is the author of In Search of a People-Centric Order in Asia (2016), Contested Ideas of Regionalism in Asia (2016), and Governing Taiwan and Tibet: Democratic Approaches (2015).

MARK E. WARREN is the Harold and Dorrie Merilees Chair in the Study of Democracy at The University of British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of Democracy and Association (2001) and coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (forthcoming) and Designing Deliberative Democracy (with Hilary Pearse, 2008).

Over the last several decades, authoritarian regimes in Asia have increasingly experimented with public consultation, political participation, and even deliberation within controlled venues.1 China is a particularly important example: though it remains an authoritarian regime, governments, mostly at the local level, have employed a wide variety of participatory practices that include consultation and deliberation.2 In the 1980s, leaders began to introduce direct elections at the village level. Other innovations have followed, including approval and recall voting at the local level, participatory budgeting, deliberative forums, Deliberative Polls, public hearings, citizen rights to sue the state, initiatives to make government information public, and acceptance of some kinds of autonomous civil society organizations. Although very uneven, many of these innovations appear to have genuinely deliberative elements: that is, they involve the kinds of talk-based politics that generate persuasive influence, from which political leaders take guidance, and upon which they rely for the legitimacy of their decisions.3 Curiously, these practices are appearing within an authoritarian state led by a party with no apparent interest in regime-level democratization. We call this paradoxical phenomenon authoritarian deliberation.

We make three broad claims. The first is oriented toward democratic theory. We argue that authoritarian deliberation is theoretically possible: it combines authoritarian distributions of the power of decision with deliberative influence.

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  • 1Jennifer Gandhi, Political Institutions under Dictatorship (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Garry Rodan and Kanishka Jayasuriya, “Beyond Hybrid Regimes: More Participation, Less Contestation in Southeast Asia,” Democratization 14 (5) (2007): 773–794; and Larry Diamond, “Elections Without Democracy: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy 13 (2) (2002): 21–35.
  • 2Baogang He, “Participatory and Deliberative Institutions in China,” in The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China, ed. Ethan Leib and Baogang He (New York: Palgrave, 2006); Manoranjan Mohanty, George Mathew, Richard Baum, and Rong Ma, eds., Grassroots Democracy in India and China (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2007); Andrew J. Nathan, “Authoritarian Resilience,” Journal of Democracy 14 (1) (2003): 6–17; and Suzanne Ogden, Inklings of Democracy in China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002).
  • 3Leib and He, eds., The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China; Shangli Lin, “Deliberative Politics: A Reflection on the Democratic Development of China,” Academic Monthly (Shanghai) 4 (2003): 19–25; He, “Participatory and Deliberative Institutions”; and Ogden, Inklings of Democracy.
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