The Political Elite and Social Movement

By Wen Kejian, published: May 12, 2014


“[D]emocratic transition….is a cause that will bring a huge return to society and is worth all the wisdom and energy political elites can give.

Wen Kejian (温克坚)

Wen Kejian (温克坚)

Among the people in China who support and advocate freedom and democracy, the idea that the success of democratic change hinges on the quality of the populace has lost favor, ostensibly anyway, as a result of years of battling ideas. But its more refined variations can still be found every now and then. For example, in particular incidents, the public has been criticized for lacking a sense of justice, or accused of inaction. So I will start this essay by paraphrasing Max Weber: the backwardness of a country is the backwardness of its elite, and the sign of its elite’s backwardness is that they always lay the blame on the quality of the populace.”

Getting rid of the idea of a high quality populace doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference between the role the elite plays and the role the populace plays. The primary difference is that the populace is apathetic to political matters for the most part and seldom becomes involved, while the political elite is a group of people for whom politics is a main interest, even profession. Any individual who takes political affairs seriously can become a political elite, and a sense of role play is crucial in social movements and in a political transition.

Without a proper sense of role play, the political elites will not be taking up political responsibility willingly and they will lose the courage to change the existing political system, resulting in the continuing survival of a political system that is hostile to freedom and tramples human rights. As Mr. Zhang Xuezhong (张雪忠) once said, “Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, many Chinese liberals have been propagating the ideas of liberty but at the same time they have either shunned political involvement out of fear or proclaimed that they are above and beyond politics out of scrupulousness. But they should have asked themselves, placing their hands on their hearts: if even those who understand freedom and believe in it the most are unwilling to take action to turn it into a political reality, who else can they expect to do so? If freedom lovers are always opting to stay away from politics, then the only thing they receive and deserve is to be ruled by freedom haters.”

Because of their knowledge structure and perspective, political elites tend to perceive future trends and changes earlier, and, because of this, they participate sooner in the political transition. These elites often consist of intellectuals, lawyers, media practitioners, and leaders of grassroots struggles. The emergence of such a group is in a way a manifestation, and a harbinger, of change itself as ducks know first when rivers warm up at the approach of spring. The influence of an elite individual is merely an admission ticket; real impact can only be made by a camp of elite individuals, or a clearly-defined structure, and this structure of political elites will play a key role as social changes pan out.

The basic task of this elite group is to rise to the occasion in a variety of scenarios and take charge to explore political conflicts. In different political systems, this role can vary significantly. In an authoritarian country, because of risk considerations and avoidance, most political elites tend to indulge in old repertoire such as enlightening the public or arguing about ideas while avoiding switching into the role of a political chess player. Also out of the need to avoid harm, most of them have the mentality of hitching a free ride, waiting to commit themselves when a safer time comes. Overcoming fear and cynicism is a psychological threshold that the political elite must cross.

In a society where the economy has become freer, ideas have been changing, but the political system is outdated and resisting change, social movements will necessarily surge and bubble up. Political elites must not only take part in these social movements but provide leadership at key moments. After a look at the democratic transition of more than 100 countries, we can see that transition has no formula, except that in all but a very few countries such as Bhutan, there has always been a highly symbolic square scene where a massive number of people gather to protest against dictators and demand the overturn of a non-democratic system. Many scenarios can trigger such a scene, such as natural disasters or governance disasters. A mass demonstration of this nature is often motivated by resentment and anger, and the participants often fall short of making clear political demands. The existence of a political elite structure, however, can inject political elements into a social movement, refashioning it with political expressions to force a political response from an authoritarian regime.

If a social movement doesn’t, within two or three days, turn into one with political demands, then it will be a lost cause for the time being. For the rulers, it is acceptable to compromise and retreat in the face of a non-political movement, because doing so does not threaten the  authoritarian regime. It will quickly find scapegoats to punish and make false promises to alleviate social pressure.

What the political elite in civil society needs to do then is to compete with the rulers to swing and shape the event. Concessions made by the government can rouse public sentiment to a great extent, and participants share a sense of achievement that sweeps away the nervousness and fear they had before. If, at this point, the elite structure can quickly elevate the level of pleading by injecting political issues, then the movement could potentially agitate the society and draw more people into it. In the June 4th democratic movement, one can see a clear trajectory of this kind.

When called for, the political elite need to lead the movement to retreat. Upon repeated evaluation, if a given social movement is deemed to be unable to withstand the crackdown of the authorities and faces imminent failure, then the political elite, taking the situation into consideration, must lead the movement to back off. In the scenario where a massive number of people has gathered and are bound together for a long time and a group identity has taken root among the individuals, few are willing to break away at that moment. But what is also true is that individuals are experiencing deepening loneliness and fear and they often need to take more radical action to stave off those feelings. At a moment like that, the masses could by degrees become irrational and besieged with a sense of despair and heroism, the elite structure must comfort the masses with an elevated narrative, affirm the positive value of the struggle, claim victory, and draw curtains on the movement. In doing so, the elite make the withdrawal itself a ritual of victory while leaving seeds for future.

Even if a social movement fails in essence, if the elite group is able to effectively lead people away, it would preserve its strength and avoid unnecessary harm or loss of life. At the same time, not giving hard liners excuses for a crackdown is essentially devaluing them. Such a move would also energize the moderates inside the authoritarian system and give them possible opportunities to emerge and rise to leadership again. By doing so, one also proclaims to the public one’s strength and projects an image of a responsible player capable of effective mobilization and management.

The essence of political elites’ involvement in a social movement is to consolidate the boundary between the elite group and the public. Put simply, it is to turn atomized groups into a large group in which the members identify with each other, share the same vision and a sense of belonging, and feel close to each other. As far as social consequences go, a successful movement is the best advertisement for social movements in general, and similarly, a failed movement will cast a shadow for a long time to come, even writing off years of buildup where everything must start again from scratch. Therefore, it is essential for the political elite group to play its role consciously.

Such an interactive structure between the political elite group and social movement is of course idealized. But with enough conscious role playing, it can be realized through repeated practice.

A social movement does not come out of nowhere, and organizers and opinion leaders will emerge over its course. They can be relatives of victims, stakeholders, or moral leaders. But more often than not, these leaders lack deliberated consideration of political affairs and may not clearly see connections between the movement itself and change of the political system. Consequently the movement makes limited demands and, as it progresses to a certain point, it is no long able to provide effective leadership for the movement, and the leadership themselves know that. They will not be able to hand over the leadership role if they see no respected and influential political elite. They will by necessity play a role for which they were not prepared. Then it should come as no surprise that their role often becomes warped and distorted over the course of the event,  hurting the movement and also wasting many precious opportunities for change.

The leadership vacuum can only be filled by a group of political elites who have taken the political stage in advance. This group is often a well-educated one with well-defined ideas, and they can be university professors, authors, renowned lawyers, media professionals, or middle-class persons in a good financial state. The discourse they construct is where the enlightenment occurs, and their very existence is a sign of social stirring.

However, the elite class can also be misled by these positive changes, thinking that the society would naturally evolve from authoritarianism to democracy through the so-called political transformation without politics. Associated with these illusions are a series of ideas, including reformism, gradualism, social construction theory, and apolitical political theory. Placed in their respective context, each of these theories has its worth, but one thing must be made clear: none of them can be a replacement for political change itself, and political problems must be solved politically.

Therefore, no matter how the society is developing, how the economy grows, and how the civil society becomes stronger, all of these are preparations for a political showdown, a showdown between the force maintaining the authoritarian system and the force working for democratic changes. Not all political showdowns have to be violent, but it cannot be a win-win game. It has to be a zero sum game in which either the force maintaining the authoritarian system wins or the force working for democratic change wins. If the democratic force loses, the tyranny will continue to exist and the welfare of millions and millions of people will be threatened. Political elites whose aspiration is to realize a democratic transition must be steadfast in taking responsibility for the outcome and must do their utmost to win this battle.

To be sure, an elite structure is hard to develop, but before the advent of large-scale social movements, each individual can identify his or her capacity for risk taking and engage in labor division and coordination with other individuals. The group willing to take the biggest risks can take up the most challenging tasks — the taboos and red lines set by the authorities, such as forming political groups, holding protests, and establishing a shadow government. Those who wish to be exposed to less risk can provide support for the first group, spread their thoughts, and publicize their existence. This work must be done persistently and over a long period of time, because the spread of political signals relies on density and frequency for them to effectively break the communication barriers and be drilled into the awareness of an otherwise ignorant public. In our time of technology and the Internet, particularly with the help of social media, information about political actions can be spread quickly and effectively to members of the public who pay attention to public affairs.

To sum it up, even though democratic transition is an arduous process full of dangers, it is a cause that will bring a huge return to society and is worth all the wisdom and energy political elites can give.

In this time of great transition, the political elites must know and continuously play their role. This alone is the constant in democratic change that will eventually leads to democracy.


Draft on January 26, 2014, revised on April 3, 2014.


Wen Kejian (温克坚) is a Hangzhou-based liberal thinker, a Charter 08 signee, and an important voice in China’s vibrant discussions of political change.


(Translated by China Change)

Chinese original

3 responses to “The Political Elite and Social Movement”

  1. This book: Democracy – What the West can learn from China ( ) provides an in-depth evidence-based analysis on the issue of democracy and good governance, using actual examples comparing the Chinese and Western political systems based on theories, structure, processes and performance. The current Chinese political system is designed for wide-based consultation with socialism as their core value whilst avoiding the flaws inherent in the design, process and structure of the Western political model. Despite the democratic nature of Chinese politics that persistently attracts a very high level of citizen satisfaction in each and every public opinion survey when compared to any Western democracy, the Western media has successfully brainwashed the world into believing that the Communist Government in China is an autocratic regime. In reality, Western democracies are in serious trouble, facing an unprecedented level of debt, unemployment, political corruption in the form of political donations, advertising and lobbying, and social dissatisfaction. It is the Western political system that requires urgent reform, or risks a revolution from the 99% — its people — in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is time to have a look at the merits of the Chinese model.

    Articles in this website totally ignored the progress and achievement made since 1949. What a shame.

  2. Everything is very open with a really clear description of the
    challenges. It was really informative. Your site is very helpful.
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. […] a restaurant in Hangzhou, an attendee at the dinner told the AP. The rest were released, but Wen, an advocate for democracy, remains in […]

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