China in Xi’s “New Era”: A Neglected Democratic Heritage

Issue Date April 2018
Volume 29
Issue 2
Page Numbers 90-97
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Under current Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping, political reform in China is more elusive than ever. Yet there have been times—not that long ago—when China, despite censorship and oppression, was home to open political debate. An intellectual ferment marked the first half of the twentieth century, when the classically trained scholars Kang Youwei (1858–1927), Yan Fu (1854–1921), and Liang Qichao (1873–1929) looked outward to embrace such ideas as constitutional monarchy, republicanism, and democracy. The 1980s saw a new intrepidity of thought when, as Deng Xiaoping began his reforms, figures such as the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi (1936–2012) burst onto the scene. The Chinese people have amassed a considerable treasury of democratic thinking—a heritage that may be buried but is not dead. When recovered, it will be able to serve as an inspiration for generations to come.

About the Author

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. His books include Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (coauthored with John Delury, 2013). This article draws from the author’s earlier essay, “China’s Hidden Democratic Legacy,” published in the July–August 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs.

View all work by Orville Schell