Memorandum by the Assistant Chief of the Division of Chinese Affairs (Rice) to Mr. Philip D. Sprouse

You will recall that at the end of our period of briefing yesterday afternoon, Gen. Wedemeyer asked whether anybody in the State Department really expected that China would become a democratic country in the foreseeable future—or, indeed, within a hundred years.

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The General’s question is a good one. Personally, it does not seem to me to be within the bounds of probability that the Kuomintang and Communist Party should agree to decide who is to run China on the basis of national elections, or that national elections held under present conditions would reflect with accuracy the popular will. However, as I personally understand it, democracy is a relative thing, and it is a thing of the spirit. I think China has been making progress toward democracy which is slow—but perceptible in terms of much less than a hundred years. Let us consider the following:

A nation with an independent press is a more democratic nation, I think you would agree, than one without it. The press serves to draw crimes, injustices and inefficient government at the local level to the attention of higher authorities, and serves as a means of putting popular pressure upon government. In the days of the Manchu Dynasty, China had no press at all and the Empress Dowager complained that she had no way of checking up on her ministers to see if they told her the truth (she came to depend on Reuters Service translated to her by Princess Der Ling). At present, despite the increasing repression of the independent press, the Ta Kung Pao in various cities and a few other papers are keeping alive the function of reporting crimes and abuses. A government without such help ends up by kidding itself into its grave. The press situation in China just now is bad, but it is far better than it was at the turn of this century under the Empress Dowager. Any trend toward resuscitation of dying press freedom in China would be a trend toward greater democracy.
A nation with a measure of freedom of the person is a more democratic nation than one with less or with no such freedom. The Manchu regime and the warlord regimes which succeeded it were absolutist in theory and practice. Now at least the various freedoms are written into the law books. This is a first step. Unhappily, the police still arrest without bothering about warrants, and writs of habeas corpus are dull instruments against them. As Tai Li26 agents of as high as Major General rank have told me, the Government frequently uses assassination as a means of disposing of troublesome persons. But any progress toward implementing the guarantees now on the books will be further democratic progress.
A nation with some forum in which representatives can express popular feeling and suggest improvement in government is more democratic than it would be without such a forum. A decade ago China had no such forum. Since then the People’s Political Council, despite the haphazard methods by which its members were chosen and its lack of much more than advisory powers, has provided a means of causing Government officials to give public account of their actions and to listen to criticism. The PPC has now gone out of existence; it is to be hoped that other organs of Government having greater [Page 650] powers may carry on its good work under the new Constitution and if they do it will represent progress toward democracy.

To come back to fundamentals, I assume that by democracy we mean “Government of the People, by the People and for the People.” In China a relatively small percentage of the people are qualified actively to decide complex issues, but many can help in practical affairs at a village or town level The Government which appeals to them as reasonably fair, and which can and does enlist them in common undertakings for the joint good, is the Government which has a chance to survive. And, other things being equal, it will be a more democratic government than one which doesn’t seek popular approval and popular participation.

Perhaps you might care to reduce these thoughts to coherence, expand or modify them as seems appropriate, and pass them on to Gen. Wedemeyer.27

  1. Gen. Tai Li was Deputy Director of the Bureau of Investigation and Statistics of the Chinese National Commission of Military Affairs until his death in 1946.
  2. Marginal notation: “ACW saw”.