The Chinese Model of Democracy as Liberal Democracy's Major Competitor

35 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2018

See all articles by John C. Reitz

John C. Reitz

University of Iowa - College of Law

Date Written: November 9, 2018


The People’s Republic of China officially refers to its current system of governance as democracy with Chinese characteristics. This paper seeks to understand that claim and foster trans-Pacific discussion by focusing first on differences from and then on similarities to the model of liberal democracy embraced in much of the rest of the world. The first part of the paper examines the ways in which the Chinese model concentrates power in a rejection of what I argue to be the key features of liberal democracy.

That part also seeks to render understandable the development of the different view of democracy in China through a brief and tentative sketch of the different historical and intellectual developments in China and the West, where liberal democracy first developed. Especially important, the paper argues, are differences in attitudes about the power of political and moral education to overcome the individual’s self-seeking behavior. The strong Confucian belief in the power of education appears to have played an important role in rationalizing great concentrations of power in China. In the west, Lord Acton’s Maxim epitomizes the thinking that education is never enough; structural limitations provided by, among others, electoral competition are necessary to protect against tyranny and corruption.

The Chinese model is thus the major competitor for liberal democracy, at least for the fifth of the world’s population that lives in China. Nevertheless, the second part of the paper seeks to show that the Chinese are not so different because we share concerns about such important issues as the dangers of unguided populism, the politicization of the judiciary through constitutional review, and the problem of the role of money in politics.

Keywords: Comparative law, democracy, China, liberal democracy, Confucianism, Lord Acton’s Maxim

Suggested Citation

Reitz, John C., The Chinese Model of Democracy as Liberal Democracy's Major Competitor (November 9, 2018). 66 Drake L. Rev. (Fall 2018 Forthcoming); U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-20. Available at SSRN:

John C. Reitz (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

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