H297 Democracy in China

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Year 2 or Year 3
Term 1
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of History

Module overview

China is conventionally described as an authoritarian country with a culture that emphasises loyalty and obedience and hierarchical socio-political structures. In this model democracy almost appears as an antithesis.

The concern of this module is to get rid of the ideological barrier linked to the notion of democracy as a political system of government that originated in ‘the West.’ We will do this 1) by looking at how the modern concept of ‘democracy’ was introduced into China, and 2) by exploring actual practices of decision-making and political participation.

This will encompass participatory forms of management and organisation in local society at the end of the imperial era, the constitutional transition with the first elections in the early twentieth century, the suffragette movement, and student activism leading to the May Fourth (1919) calls for ‘democracy and science.’ Alongside this, we will look at how the public debate about the concept of democracy unfolded.

The second half of the module looks at concepts of democracy that have dominated much of twentieth-century China’s political life, from the Leninist notion of democratic centralism to socialist democracy. We will explore this through the study of political campaigns, in particular the Anti-Rightist campaign of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution. The module will end with another student-led democracy movement (1989) and the subsequent formulation of Charter 08.


  • Students enrol via the on-line Module Sign-up system. Students are advised of the timing of this process via email by the Dept. administrator

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • 1) explore China’s twentieth-century history in the context of the ongoing debate about decolonising history;
  • 2) critically evaluate different conceptualisations of democracy and its various manifestations in this period of Chinese history;
  • 3) compose evidence based arguments about the translatability of political/cultural concepts.


  • One hour lecture and a one hour tutorial for 10 weeks.

Method of assessment

  • 1,500 word reading journal (20%)
  • 1,500 word reading journal (20%)
  • 2,500 word essay (60%) OR a 2 hour, 2,500 word take home exam (60%)

Suggested reading

  • Chan, Rosen, Unger, eds., On Socialist Democracy and the Chinese Legal System: the Li Yizhe Debates (Armonk, N.Y., 1985). 
  • Louise Edwards, Gender, Politics, and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage in China (Stanford, 2008). 
  • Mark Elvin, ‘The Gentry Democracy in Shanghai, 1905-1914’ (Cambridge, 1969). 
  • John Fincher, Chinese Democracy: Statist Reform, the Self Government Movement and Republican Revolution (Tokyo, 1989). 
  • Joshua Hill, Voting as a Rite: a History of Elections in Modern China (Cambridge, Mass.: 2019). 
  • Xiong Yuezhi, Zhongguo jindai minzhu sixiang shi – The history of democratic thought in modern China (Shanghai, 1986). 


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules.