Rethinking Democracy in China

China Studies Centre, China Development Society, and Sydney Democracy Network at the University of Sydney

When Trees Fall, Monkeys Scatter: Rethinking Democracy in China

John Keane

6.00-8.00pm, Tuesday 23 May 2017
Philosophy Room S249, Quadrangle Building, The University of Sydney

Predictions of the coming collapse of Chinese politics are today commonplace, however this talk explores a radically different alternative. China, it argues, is a one-party-dominated political system whose surprising levels of public support and resilience in the face of serious economic, environmental and social problems suggest that it is more durable than most outside observers suppose. China is not an ailing ‘autocracy’, a case of ‘crony capitalism’ or a blindly repressive ‘authoritarian regime’. The rulers of China are in fact experimenting with a wide range of locally-made democratic tools designed to win the trust and loyalty of their subjects.

Examples probed in this talk include the injection of accountability mechanisms into state bureaucracy, the toleration of independent public opinion leaders, the growing reliance of Party officials and corporate executives on public opinion polls and ‘democratic style’, and the calculated use by Party officials of digitally networked media as early warning devices. The talk examines why locally-made democratic practices often favour one-party rule and why China is becoming a globally significant political laboratory: a 21st century testing ground for a new type of top-down popular government at odds with power-sharing democracy as it was known during the past generation.

John Keane is co-founder of the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN) and Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). His full-scale history of democracy, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), was short-listed for the 2010 Non-Fiction Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and recently ranked (by one of Japan’s leading newspapers, Asahi Shimbun) within the top three non-fiction books published during 2013 in Japan.

Chair: Luigi Tomba is Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His latest book on urban neighbourhood life and politics The Government Next Door: Neighbourhood Politics in Urban China was honoured by the American Association for Asian studies with the 2016 Joseph Levenson prize.

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