China Invented Democracy?
Jude Wanniski
November 4, 1997


Letters Editor
The New York Times
229 West 43 Street
New York NY 10036

Dear Editor:

In the Times account (November 2) of China President Jiang Zemin's visit to Harvard, the comment was made that he was obviously incorrect in asserting that China had invented democracy prior to the patent issued to Greece. In fact, China has had a distinct form of democracy from the time of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), coincident with the establishment of democracy in Athens in 507 B.C. By that I mean it has had a fluid society, in which the poorest boy born in the poorest province could rise to the top of the permanent government, the civil service, by passing the examinations.

As a philosophical adjunct, Confucius also brought us the Golden Rule, 400 years prior to Hillel, 500 years before Christ: "Not to do unto others as you would not wish done unto yourself." This has been the strength of China over the millennia, to which we are now blind in looking for a top-down democracy, where people can vote en masse for political leaders at a ballot box. This helps answer the question why China can now be growing so rapidly while India remains mired in poverty, a half century after independence from Britain, which left it with a top-down democracy and a taste for social stratification.

For the past few years, I've discussed these ideas on several occasions with Ambassador Li Daoyu, China's representative in Washington. On one such occasion, I asked if he had been born in poverty. No, he said he had been born to a privileged commercial family in Shanghai in the 1930s and had learned his English at a Baptist mission. On the other hand, he noted that his top personal assistant, a young man in his 20s, had been born in a small village in a remote, poor province, but showed intellectual gifts that caused him to rise to his current position, with no end in sight.

The Chinese form of corporate democracy would not work here, because we have a culture shaped by all other cultures. In fact, we are the only top-down democracy with a two-party system. There is plenty of voting that goes on inside China, but it is from the bottom-up, most of it outside the official government, the rest within the one-party system in a way that is not visible at a distance. It is in that way that China "invented" democracy with Greece.


Jude Wanniski