When American traders began arriving in China at the close of the eighteenth century, local officials were curious about their new visitors. One of the earliest Chinese descriptions of Americans appeared in a dispatch sent by the governor of Liang-Guang province to the imperial court in Beijing:
These barbarians have no monarch whatsoever, only a headman. The tribe publicly selects several men, who serve in succession according to the drawing of lots, for terms of four years apiece. Commercial affairs are managed independently by private individuals who are not controlled or disputed by the headman.
The Qing dynasty was perplexed by a people who could do without a king or a centrally administered market. Fifty years later, when Ulysses Grant, after his presidency, became the first US leader to travel to China, his visit presented a problem for Shanghai copy desks. They settled on referring to him as huangdi (emperor). By then, many Chinese were aware that the United States was ostensibly ruled by elected representatives, but to use the newfangled Chinese character for “president” still seemed like a sign of disrespect. Then, as now, to be a democratic leader touring China was a bit of an embarrassment.
That the Chinese government today should peer through our electoral robes and find our body politic wanting should not be surprising. To see China as perpetually on the brink of a democratic awakening is to mistake the contingencies of its history for our dreams deferred. China’s flirtation with elections in the wake of Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 revolution was a brief encounter. The country did not become a democracy during the populist May Fourth Movement a few years later, when Chinese student demonstrators learned Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points by heart. It did not become a democracy after World War II, when the gentle offices of Gen. George Marshall tried to coax the Kuomintang and the communists into a unity government. It did not become a democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when Gorbachev became an anti-example for the government. It is not about to become one now.
To be sure, the country does face severe crises—corruption that has set the party against itself; a judiciary in thrall to the Politburo; separatist and democracy movements in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong; pollution levels that suddenly appear intolerable to its citizens; and an economy beset by excess liquidity and shrinking demand in export markets. Most daunting of all, there is China’s need to feed its people and diminish its reliance on imported food, which may soon require the most ambitious land reform in history. Whether it is effected through privatization or some other means, the expansion of industrial-size farms in China to satisfy the new diet of its middle class could create an enormous tide of landless peasants, whose grievances might overwhelm a party that still owes some of its legitimacy to its original redistribution of land in 1950.