In 2006, one year before the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th Congress, Yu Keping (俞可平), a political scholar generally seen as part of President Hu Jintao’s inner circle of theorists, leapt into China’s spotlight with a book called Democracy is a Good Thing. This week, in the wake of last week’s turbulent removal of Bo Xilai — and just six months from the crucial 18th Congress — Yu Keping is in the spotlight again.
Last month, Yu Keping released a new book called Democratic Governance and Political Reform in China (敬畏民意：中国的民主治理与政治改革). The English-language title on the book’s jacket is in fact a partial translation of the Chinese title. The full title should read something like: Prizing the Will of the People: Democratic Governance and Political Reform in China.
In the book, Yu discusses a set of key points about Chinese society and politics in recent years, and argues (as Premier Wen Jiabao often has in recent months) that China stands at an important crossroads on the question of whether and how a basic consensus on reforms, both economic and political, can be maintained.
Yu Keping’s Chinese title, Prizing the Will of the People, in fact expresses the core idea of his book, that the popular will as expressed in public opinion is the only true basis for the legitimacy of political leadership in China.
Yu, the deputy director of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, is one of China’s most prominent political scholars, his research covering such areas as political philosophy, comparative politics and civil society development. Yu, who is closely associated with the Hu-Wen administration, sparked debate in China about “democratic politics” in 2006 with the publication of his book Democracy is a Good Thing.
In the essay that provided the foreword to Democracy is a Good Thing Yu Keping wrote [a nod once again to Roland Soong for his translation]:
Democracy is a good thing, and this is not just for specific persons or certain officials; this is for the entire nation and its broad masses of people. Simply put, for those officials who care more about their own interests, democracy is not only not a good thing; in fact, it is a troublesome thing, even a bad thing. Just think, under conditions of democratic rule, officials must be elected by the citizens and they must gain the endorsement and support of the majority of the people; their powers will be curtailed by the citizens, they cannot do whatever they want, they have to sit down across the people and negotiate. Just these two points alone already make many people dislike it. Therefore, democratic politics will not operate on its own; it requires the people themselves and the government officials who represent the interests of the people to promote and implement.
The following is a partial translation of the transcript of an interview Yu Keping gave recently to Huashang Bao, in which he discusses his new book:
Huashang Bao: You’ve just recently come out with a new book. I’ve found something quite interesting, which is that the full name of the book is Prizing the Will of the People: Democratic Governance and Political Reform in China, but in the publicity the book has gotten everyone seems to have simply called the book Prizing the Will of the People. It seems right to suggest that this overlooks a much more concrete sense of the book [and its content] and that is “democratic governance and political reform in China.” Do you think that in China today, just as with this process of publicizing [your book], democratic governance and political reform and such questions have been consciously or unconsciously ignored, or insufficient attention paid to them?
Yu Keping: No, not at all. Emphasizing “prizing the will of the people” is in fact my intent. It is the root of democratic politics. As I’ve said before, the Chinese Communist Party defines as its purpose “establishing the Party for the public, governing for the people” (立党为公，执政为民). It takes the power by the people (人民当家作主) of people’s democracy (人民民主) as the very life of socialism. For the Chinese Communist Party, the interests of the people should be the core value to be pursued, and the will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of governance. Regardless of whether this is about “all rights for the people” (权为民所有) and “power for the people” (权为民所赋), or about “power exercised for the people” (权为民所用), we can’t step around these two words “popular will” (民意) [or “will of the people”]. If you depart from the popular will, there’s no such thing even as “taking charge for the people” (为民做主), not to mention “exercising power for the people”.
But as you’ve just said, Prizing Public Opinion encapsulates my thinking over the past few years about democratic politics and political reform in our country. In Democracy is a Good Thing, Let the People Make China Prosper (让民主造福中国) and Thought Liberation and Political Progress (思想解放与政治进步), I’ve continued to argue that democracy is a good thing, and I’ve talked about such concepts as “increasing democracy” (增量民主), “dynamic stability” (动态稳定), good government and good leadership, civil society and “renewing the government” (政府创新). . . I’ve indicated strongly that in this key areas, we must have a breakthrough on political reform. Otherwise, our project of modernization will suffer setback, the cost of development will constantly rise, and the pressures on governance will rise dramatically.
I’ve also tried to raise some new methods and new ideas about possible solutions. For example, I think that “to rule the country by law we must first rule the Party by law” (依法治国必先依法治党), that “we must innovate social management and at the same time prioritize the self-governance of society” (既要创新社会管理，又要重视社会自治), that “mutual governance by the government and the people is the basic path to good governance” (官民共治是通向善治的基本途径), etcetera.
Huashang Bao: My impression is that among high-level officials you’re the one who talks most publicly about reform and about democracy. Where did these convictions of yours come from?
Yu Keping: They have a lot to do with my family and background. I was born into a poor farming household. I used to graze the cattle, and I once served as a cadre in a rural production brigade. My parents and my brothers and sisters are still in the countryside. I know the hardships among the people, and I know that only democratic politics can allow every ordinary citizen to enjoy lives of fairness, justice and prosperity. Besides this, there is my professional background. I am a political scholar. In fact, I was the first political studies PhD that China fostered all on its own. It is my responsibility to promote democratic politics and to share a knowledge of democracy with all.
In my study of the development of political principles in China and beyond, from ancient times to the present, I’ve come to have a deep understanding that an advanced state of democracy and rule of law is the only true way to achieve the great revitalization of the Chinese people, and it is where the basic nature of socialism lies. I believe that any scholar or official who cares for China’s fate and has a responsible attitude toward the people will feel the same profound sense of historical responsibility and gravity that I feel.
Huashang Bao: Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that there are some officials that really do have no interest at all in these things that you care about and advocate. All they care about is there own power and their own interests. How do you view this?
Yu Keping: If you care only for your own interests and power, that shows not just that you have no interest at all in democracy and rule of law but even worse that you will do your utmost to vilify and harm the democratic undertaking. In clear anticipation of exactly this situation, I made a point of adding in a “note”: seeing these words, some officials will laugh narrow-mindedly to themselves; some scholars will turn up their noses; some readers will dismiss what I say as empty chatter. Knowing this only too well, I reaffirm my views? Why? Because I deeply believe that there will be more people who cherish their rights, there will be more scholars who hold on to their ideals, and there will be more officials who prize public opinion. Where the public will goes, so trend the times.