A Forward Strategy for Democracy Promotion in 2008 and Beyond: Regaining the Momentum

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This is the text of the address by Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, to the Henry Jackson Society and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy at the House of Commons, Westminster, 21 January 2008.

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Observers who focus too much on elections have failed to grasp the maturation of Iranian civil society, even as hard-liners have come to dominate the government. The birth of a civil rights movement in Iran is a ray of hope in a region beset by difficulties, and the most promising response to the new totalitarian threat that is endangering the world's stability. Democratic governments around the world should realize that supporting this movement is not only the right thing to do, but is an urgent national-security imperative for themselves and their peoples.
Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder worry about democratization in countries that lack the "right" preconditions because they believe that political development is path dependent. I see fewer dangers in "premature" democratic experiments and am skeptical about trying to hold off democratic change until conditions are ideal. West European political development was a series of false starts, failed liberalizations, and temporary regressions. Indeed these cases seem to show that problems and failures not only did not preclude later democratic success, but were instead integral parts of the long-term process through which non-democratic institutions, elites, and cultures were delegitimized and eventually eliminated and their democratic successors forged.
A communist society is characterized by comradeship. A democratic society is characterized by citizenship. Indeed, without citizen participation there can be no democracy. A citizen is a person who holds a number of rights and freedoms, such as voting, forming and joining associations, participating in public life, and publishing his or her opinions. Following this definition, we find that in China there are virtually no citizens. It has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party for almost six decades. China is the only one of the world's five largest countries that is not a democracy. The simplest way to decide if a system is democratic is to determine whether or not there are citizens (as defined above) in the society. If such citizens can be found, then the society can be deemed a democracy. If instead comrades are found, then the society is communist. The term "comrade" denotes a loyal and trusted follower of communism who unquestioningly obeys party orders and subscribes to party policies (p. 5). A comrade is willing to forgo his or her rights. A citizen, on the other hand, asserts and enjoys his or her rights. In contemporary China, "comrade" is still the dominant form of official address for Communist Party members. But is there evidence that China is shifting from communism toward democracy? Has a democratic transition in China already begun? Merle Goldman, professor emerita of Chinese history at Boston University and associate of the John K. Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, attempts to answer these intriguing questions. Goldman is a leading scholar who has devoted her career to searching out "seeds of democracy" in contemporary China. As the title suggests, From Comrade to Citizen explores the country's growing civil society and the process of supplanting comradeship with a democratic sense of citizenship and rights. Goldman introduces the reader to individuals in China who want to be democratic citizens and follows their struggles for citizenship. Her book traces the development of movements that have questioned China's political structure and have attempted to guarantee the rights that are theoretically enshrined in the country's constitution. Based on her close and professional examination, Goldman presents a stimulating discussion of the Chinese people's attempts to achieve democracy and political rights over the last twenty years. Goldman rightly characterizes democratic transition as the march toward citizenship. She reports on the efforts of Chinese intellectuals and a growing number of ordinary people to cast off their roles as comrades and instead to begin to act as citizens and to assert their political rights. And she shows how the struggle for freedom initiated by intellectuals has been spreading to workers and peasants. Goldman sympathizes with the struggles of these activists and organizers, and she is also well aware of the limitations that a Leninist party can impose on society. She writes: For semi-autonomous and even autonomous groups to survive in China in the last decades of the twentieth century, they had to be explicitly apolitical. Consequently, without any laws to protect them and without the backing of a broad social base or a civil society . . . politically independent groups could not function openly for very long. According to Goldman, the democratization process in China is almost identical to the transition from comradeship to citizenship. Democracy depends on the desire of organized citizens to participate in the political process, to hold the political authorities accountable for their actions, and to promote the public good (p. 233). Obviously, today's China is not a democracy—yet a transition from totalitarianism began after the ruling party adopted its reform and open-door policies in 1978. This has resulted in an expanding public space and the beginnings of civil society. As Goldman notes, there is now a growing sense of rights consciousness—particularly as regards political rights—that was initially articulated by intellectuals but which now has spread to workers, peasants, the growing middle class, and religious believers (p. 2). The author considers prodemocratic intellectuals both within and outside the establishment as pioneers in asserting and defending their political rights, and therefore in acting as citizens. These intellectuals have contributed significantly to expanding the public...
This article asks: "What will be the future character of China's political system?" According to Freedom House, all countries above a certain income level are rated at least Partly Free, so why not China? Assuming continued growth in education and the economy, the model result shows it edging into that category by 2015 and Free by 2025. Despite evident negatives, changes in personal liberties, legal system, media, village elections, and individual values support this prediction. An in-between stage might involve more open competition within the party. When achieved, a democratic China would be a positive factor for peace in Asia.
Democracy is and always will be in some kind of crisis, for it is constantly redirecting its citizens' gaze from a more or less unsatisfactory present toward a future of still unfulfilled possibilities. There is in these crises something that belongs to what is best and most distinctive about democracy. For the crises underline democracy's intrinsic mix of hope and dissatisfaction, its highlighting of a lack that will never be filled. The capacity for hope is the great capacity of democracy, one which under the right circumstances can and should nourish other, more specific capacities that may promote improvements in democratic quality.
Interview: David Miliband
  • D Miliband
Miliband, D., 2008. Interview: David Miliband. New statesman [online], 17 January. Available from: [Accessed 9 February 2008].
Iran's resilient civil society: the untold story of the fight for human rights
  • L Boroumand