Propagandas in China claim that the population is too large for China to have a democracy. Propagandas claim that democracy runs best in small countries such as ancient Greek polis and modern European countries.

I would like to know if there have been studies (theoretical or empirical) on the relation between the viability of democracy in a country and the size of its population. (the arguments given by the propaganda are laughable by any standards, so I am not going to talk about it)

Edit 1: A modern version of the above statements: China is just too big and unstable for democracy and that stability should be the paramount focus--not democracy (from Quora)

'Big' here means the size of population rather than the area of the country--Chinese people are well aware that U.S. is roughly as big as China in area.

A modern version of the propaganda would say that China is unstable because 1) the size of the population is too large 2) ethnic diversity, i.e., Tibetans, Uyghur people, etc.

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    The relevant stats isn't only size, but (1) Homogenuity of demographics, and (2) Trust levels - the latter clearly has casual relationship with demographics size.
    – user4012
    Dec 17, 2014 at 17:20
  • @DVK, perhaps you can elaborate your point in an answer?
    – wdg
    Dec 18, 2014 at 1:28
  • @wdg - frankly, too lazy to hunt up good references. I'm open to someone stealing the point to make a good referenced answer :)
    – user4012
    Dec 18, 2014 at 6:25
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    @wdg, Sorry. I heard people from the south are not easily disgusted. Is that why they overlook the shocking realities in the world's largest democracy? Poverty is not an excuse for being filthy. A lot of poor, undemocratic people are clean. Take a look at North Korea. google.com/maps/@39.017933,125.764209,3a,75y,90t/… Dec 18, 2014 at 12:05
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    Isn't federalism the solution to this problem? Also just as it interests me can you link to those statements
    – user45891
    Dec 18, 2014 at 17:24

7 Answers 7


It has frequently been argued that direct democracy is superior to representative democracy or that genuine democracy is not possible among a large group of people so the idea is not new or absurd. But it's difficult to see how it applies specifically to China (as opposed to being a criticism of modern democracy in general).

In the ideal Greek polis, citizens could all take part in government, make proposals, debate current affairs or be called to official functions (possibly by random draw rather than election) so that they would “rule and be ruled in turn”. I don't know how accurate this model is, historically speaking, but that's how many thinkers understood it.

By contrast, in a representative democracy, most citizens are much less active in government. Members of the ruling class are elected and can most importantly be “voted off” but there is still a distinct cadre of people who actually run the polity. Without getting in a debate about what's “true” democracy or trying to give a precise definition, it's enough to note that nearly all non-autocratic/authoritarian states in the world are organized in that way. In a group of 100,000 people, it's just not possible for everybody to know each other personally and interact face-to-face or to gather everyone in one place.

From this perspective, democratic European states are not so small. Apart from a few surviving exceptions like the Swiss cantons Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden, all of them, even tiny micro-states like San Marino and Andorra, have some form of representative democracy in which most citizens do not and cannot participate directly in the day-to-day administration of the country. Representative democracy readily scales to larger groups of people (to fix ideas Appenzell Innerrhoden has 15,000 inhabitants – about 4000 of them participate in the yearly assembly, San Marino has 32,000, EU countries have between 400,000 in Malta and 80,000,000 in Germany).

Elections, media campaigns, etc. are organized in countries with populations ranging from half a million people in Luxembourg to tens of millions in Germany, France, Italy or the UK and more than 200 millions in Brazil or the US. Modern middle-size democratic countries in Europe are very unlike a Greek polis and it makes little sense to lump them together and oppose them to China in this discussion. The only threshold seems to be between a few hundreds to a few thousands citizens on the one hand and millions on the other, not between one hundred million and one billion.

And then there is India. It's not perfect but whatever you think of its political system or its success relative to China, it shows that organizing elections and allowing a more open governance is possible without all hell breaking loose, even with a billion people and great cultural and religious diversity.

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    Out of proportion, out of context, tv is incapable of political discourse. It is the very media that turns democracy into mob rule. Dec 22, 2014 at 5:04
  • @GeorgeChen Maybe but how does that relate to the question or to my answer?
    – Relaxed
    Dec 22, 2014 at 11:05
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    I asked "does it work?" because You wrote "that's how it works everywhere." Here's another paradox, it appears that a democracy is more belligerent than a republic. And free media in a democracy are more likely to whip up war-like feelings. War creates dictators, but it is democracy that fosters the kind of feelings that give rise to war. Dec 22, 2014 at 18:05
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    @GeorgeChen OK, I did not catch the reference. That's precisely the kind of things I tried to avoid debating in the answer as I don't think it's relevant to the question at all. Substitute “That's the way it is everywhere” if it helps. Point is, there is no reason to think that one billion is qualitatively different from one hundred million and India proves it can be done.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 22, 2014 at 18:12
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    All philosophical arguments on direct democracy vs. representation (or your own points about mob rule, TV, war mongering, republics, culture, etc.), interesting as they might be, apply equally to European or South American countries as they do to China. The big gap in terms of scale and population size is going from a polity where everybody knows everybody and can meet in person to some form of mediated coordination. That's the gist of my answer.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 22, 2014 at 18:17

I do not know about China. However, in post-Soviet Russia, the word "democracy" became pejorative. While all people agree that the rule of the people is good, the politicians who call themselves "democrats" are regarded very negatively.

This is because since the late 80-s "a democrat" became a synonym of someone who conducts the US interests and for the betterment of the rich. This received sarcastic overtones after "democrat" Yeltsin ordered that tanks shell the legislature's building (Белый дом).

Today, in Russia, a "democrat" is someone who

  • wants Russia to concede all its national interests both in foreign policy and domestically

  • supports regional separatism

  • weakening of the power of the state

  • adopting everything the US says and promoting interests of the foreign big business.

Politicians who call themselves "democrats" receive no more than 5% on the elections, and independent polls confirm this. This was not the case before the late 1980s. Back then, the word was viewed positively and was widely used in Communist propaganda.

That said, in modern times one may use the word in various meanings

  1. Generic historical meaning (the rule of the people)

  2. Democracy as a rule by the "democrats", a political power that call themselves "democrats" regardless of the support by the people. Under "democracy" democrats have the right to overthrow and ban "non-democrats" (that is all their political opponents) using for instance, "lustration" measures, like what recently happened in Ukraine.

  3. Democracy as rule by a "democratic power" such as the US or UK or entering "democratic organizations" like NATO or conducting policies demanded by a "democratic power": if you do whatever the US or other "democratic power" says, you are a democracy.

  4. Democracy as a system similar to that in the US or other western powers, regardless of whether the people in fact in power there.

  5. Democracy as chaos, weakening of state power. This meaning developed from the meaning 3, "democracy is when you do whatever the West wants", because the West usually wants the state power of your own country to weaken and chaos installed.

I think the article you are referring to means either democracy in the meaning 5 or democracy in the meaning 4. In short, it means either "China is not ready for weak state power" or "China is not ready for the system like in the US".

  • I don't understand 4. I understand the sentence, grammatically and every word and probably the statement on its own, but what do you mean by that? Why do you make that statement? How does it tie into your argumentation?
    – Nobody
    Jul 18, 2020 at 16:40

The simple and straightforward answer is that modern institutionalized forms of democracy are perfectly viable in a nation with a large population, even a population as large as China's. However, there are a number of different issues to discuss to get to that conclusion, so please bear with me.

First, we should go back to Aristotle's distinction between polity and democracy. Aristotle listed out three major types of government — rule by an individual, rule by an elite, and rule by the masses — and each of these three types had a virtuous and un-virtuous form. For rule by the masses, the virtuous form was 'polity', which effectively meant rule by citizens who were well-informed, civically-minded, responsible, and dedicated. Aristotle's 'democracy', by contrast, was rule by rabble, what we might today call demagoguery. In his typology, polity was the best form of government if it could be achieved, because it most closely adhered to the interests of the citizenry and community, but democracy was the absolute worst form of government. Keep in mind the context, though... Even though we think of ancient Greece as the birthplace of Western philosophy, literacy rates were low: less than a third of the population could read and write to any extent, and probably less than five percent of the population were what we would consider to be educated and informed. Ancient Greece was an agricultural society, with the vast majority of the population tied up in farming and animal husbandry. What we call 'Greek democracy' was actually a polity made up of wealthy landowners and artisans, those who came together in the marketplace (agora) and had the leisure time and perspective to discuss things other than planting and harvesting.

A millennium and a half later, during the Liberal Enlightenment, people began revisiting Aristotle's Politics, but they did so with the understanding that literacy rates were rising, and more importantly — because of the invention of the printing press — communication of information was becoming much more widespread. Broadsheets, books, and other printed media meant that even remote agricultural communities could stay abreast of current events and modern advances, and so Liberal philosophy began to consider the idea that a polity of the entire body of citizenry was possible. The term 'democracy' stopped carrying the negative implications it had in Aristotle's view, and became an aspiration: rule by all the people, because all the people now have the capacity to be well-informed, civically-minded, responsible, and dedicated. The emphasis shifted from 'knowledge' (which was out-of-bounds for most of the people of ancient Greece, but accessible to modern people) to 'reason' (which was the capacity people needed to develop to analyze that influx of information). Democracy became the 'polity of all', which is the way the term is used in the modern era.

However, the problem with democracy as a 'polity of all' (as Enlightenment thinkers knew) is that it is slow. In the days of horses and sailing ships, knowledge might spread at the rate of 20 or 30 miles a day, meaning that distant information could be weeks out of date. Further, arguments and debates had to flow through these same channels, so that discussions across a community of people of any size could take months. That simply was not practical for administrative purposes. These kinds of problems led the originators of the first real effort at large-scale democracy — the founders of the US constitution — to adopt a system of institutionalized representative democracy. Whatever one thinks of the modern US political system, the original design was innovative: it used institutional representation both to break up power blocs that could undermine democratic intentions while creating an artificial elite — one whose members were constantly being replaced — that could make decisions more efficiently but still be responsive to the interests of the average (informed) citizen.

In the modern era, speed of communication has increased exponentially, as have literacy rates. There are no longer technical barriers to knowledge except the limitations of the human brain in processing large amounts of data. This is a mixed blessing, of course. Modern information technology has unleashed a torrent of propaganda, lies, distractions, and sheer unadulterated nonsense such as never been seen, and that creates significant problems for the institutions of democracy (problems those in the US have not yet understood, much less found a solution for). But it also creates the potential for a true 'polity of all', by re-institutionalizing a representative system to empower citizens with access to both information and decision processes.

There's no more sense asking why the Chinese government resists this move than in asking why the US government resists it. It is an unfortunate fact that power is sometimes its own justification, and no other reason or excuse is needed. But the creation of a functional institutionalized representative democracy on the scale of China is perfectly feasible, given modern communication technologies. We have the way, just not the will to do it.


China is right in that the population is too large for China to have a functional democracy. Large populations over the Dunbar Number (about 150 people) degrades into tyranny of the majority, with the majority having no empathy or connection for the minority.

Democracy is also a scam and failure due to the following points

Rational Ignorance

You have a better chance of winning the lottery than affecting the outcome of an election, plus it pays better too.



Concentrated Benefits, Dispersed Costs




Median Voter Theorem

All politicians sound the same. Nothing ever changes - nothing is ever 'fixed'. Anything that breaks, the next politician keeps in place. Problems compound.


Principal Agent Problem

People just don't have all the time in the world to supervise their representatives. (Technically a problem with republics, but nearly all 'democracies' use representatives.)


I'm not a fan of China's system, but there are better ways than democracy. I won't answer if China's way is bad or what the best system is as it wasn't part of the question.

  • I have gone through all your links. In summary, you pointed out several drawbacks of democracy. Even all things you pointed out are true, it does not follow that China's current system is right. To me, Dunbar number is irrelevant. Rational Ignorance may be a genuine and unique problem of democracy. Concentred Benefits, Dispersed Costs applies to China's current system as well, and the problem is probably worse in China. Median Voter Theorem is a neural phenomenon, or even a good aspect of democracy. Principal-agent problem is not unique to democracy.
    – wdg
    Apr 22, 2016 at 5:35
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    I never said China's system is right. I only said democracy is a scam and is broken and doesn't work except for small groups. I'm confident that many people would agree that democracy is broken in USA. It can only be worse in China with 4x the population. RE: Median voter theorem - all politicians sound the same so nothing ever changes - nothing is ever 'fixed'. How is that a good thing? Whatever small breaks appear, the next politician keeps them in place (i.e. tax code, oil subsidies, medicare, etc.). They compound.
    – Chloe
    Apr 22, 2016 at 8:33
  • @Chole, if you didn't say "China's system is right", then what did you mean by "China is right."? It is the first sentence in your answer! You do have a point in your interpretation of Median Voter Theorem. What I had in mind was that Median Voter Theorem/phenomenon could prevent the emergence of a strongman who likes to do extreme stuff. But my overall point is, listing the bad sides of democracy does not automatically demonstrate China's system is right, which you mentioned you never said.
    – wdg
    Apr 22, 2016 at 10:38
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    @wdg "China is right" is in response to the first part of the question, "Propagand[ists] in China claim that the population is too large for China to have a democracy", not that their system is better. I'll edit the answer.
    – Chloe
    Apr 22, 2016 at 20:51

I don't think a hard limit can be defined, because perfect democracy is impractical. However, in a large political unit a voter can no longer directly interact with all the candidates and depends instead on the media and the candidates' supporters to know their policies, character, and activities, and must go through increasingly long and formal channels to reach their representative.

The former means that in a larger constituency the impact of mass media, political advertising, and the support of a large party machine are much more important. That allows those who control and pay for them to have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of elections.

The latter means that the ordinary voter has less ability to influence their representative without the assistance of professional lobbyists, and it creates opportunities for people to buy their way past the regular channels.

On the other hand, a very small democracy can find itself unable to execute the desires of the voters even if the government perfectly represents them. Most countries could not approach their current standard of living without external trade because essential natural resources are missing, so they can only trade on terms the rest of the world finds tolerable, and that tends to include having acceptable political systems and internal policies on matters unrelated to trade. Even between wealthy democracies, that has been an issue: for example, the USA has issued warnings to European countries that certain bills would invoke sanctions to protect religious freedom.

Picking the sweet spot between the two problems is fundamentally a matter of opinion, and depends in part on other factors like the internal political system, the scope of powers held at a particular level, and how likely the rest of the world is to object to what you want your country to do.


I see no real 100% democracy even in 2016 today. Every countries running by any particular system is imperfect and yet we will only enlarge the cons of each other and cover the logical reasoning and methods available that today is easily implementable with out level of technology. All for the gains of 1%. The focus on political power and economy using legislation in laws are forever one step behind to ensure the advantage of minority over the majority.

The China issue is not about democracy but how much can they had improved till today in such a short time and their current system is proven to be right for this country. Yes. freedom, media control, human rights issue, corruption, injustice are still prevailing but until the rest of the world can stop trading with them or willing to send army in to take over then its pointless to keep talking but rather try and change them faster for the better.

Democracy had started on a stage of one people one vote in the west and let the majority of people decide. We had set legal age limit on when you can vote through logical reasoning but yet failed to move to next stage when our evolution required a more responsive, rational democratic system. It will need to take into considerations of factors like age ( why a first time voter young man had same voting right as a 70 grandfather contributing.), qualification(professional of all fields can have their own associations or NGOs globally and yet experts view are so minimized and influenced so great greatly by political parties or corporations. We are fast to create profits with bad products and services but take how long to stop or control them (tobacco, bacon and ham and now wifi) Always selling to the poorly informed common people for our convenience of quick profit.

The format of using western developed countries as a model that the are the current best should not be defined 10/10 but rather what else in term of possibility of IT we use to enhance as the correct perfect score. Then this will also bring the developing nations to accelerate faster for improvements. Eg laws should be enforced using all available statistic on a dashboard to put into stricter punishment when certain crime reach certain level and decrease accordingly if necessary(low possibility again as our population increase worldwide only increase crime rate with more criminals of all kinds).eg Even traffic fines should be based on % of income reported or assets instead of fixed amount that is so unfair to the poor and won't hinder the rich behaviour. Might as well give license for speeding outright.

The main cons of democracy is that 1. as long majority of people allowed, there is few mechanism to stop our current system from implementing new rules that are totally wrong morally, logically or rationally. There need to be same counter force to prevent wrong judgement. Some examples are:If majority vote you are not the child of yr biological parent. technically its possible. If majority agree justin can have 100 wifes or taylor swift can drive over any speed limit, why not? The scale of moral and populism must be managed evenly. 2. the term of 2-5 year of any election is too long to wait for next better option and too hard to bring them any elected ones. Look at the poll figures for any person in elected position for any countries in this century and you realized how hard is it to name one person who exit on non-popularity issue. So what incentive is there to be good man all the way when we can have restrictive terms on reasonable doubts to rotate officers but public can't even rate them properly to bring them down fast enough when required based on few bad decisions. We can have millions of trade daily trading in miliiseconds and yet don't even have people based KPIs rating on all government servants like the rating on bank clerk or Mac cashier with a smiley or grumpy face? Even S & P or Moody standards are what we supposed to be paid by govt and yet till the day banks crushes the rating is still good as even.

The fault lines of democracy are so clear cut and yet logical reasoning on simple problems that explode into headlines will take years to solve. IT will need be used intensively to help people manage the government errors that results in huge monetary and environmental losses to the people. We are still living in the world where in any countries there is no index to know exactly how many people are there alive, gonna be dead or given birth soon. People are missing in Flight like MH370 and Harry porter name can even come out in the Panama Paper. These solutions won't need scientist to come out with and preventive step can easily be written and modified by experts, but never instant to implement. Justice will never come fast enough and might even take forever while crime take only seconds to commit. Protest and riots are too slow or even easily suppress to make real impact. The level of colluding by govts on a level never will be open to public unless wikileak happen is what we can wish for now. Therefore any fight of democracy, human rights,justice, transparency, climate, animal rights etc are all only tools to bring either left, right or center party in any government down but they all have certain level constraints here or there to individuals. The participation rate of any voting that is so hard to reach the 2/3 or 3/4 level is indications of how dishearten people are really. Life goes on when good and bad event is still 50/50 in any country.The chance any of us get kill in school or by police in US or by China government is the same. I'm lucky to be born in one of those country singapore that neither will EVER happen. Privilege for 5m and rich one who can migrate here. Case of so successful on international scale and yet silence on global issues to avoid earning the irks of trading partners. Moral obligations that can be proven logically and with available statistics must be integrated into IT for the only solutions to solve all global issues with results in sight.

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    Your answer strays too far off topic. This question is about China, and whether or not there's any merit to the claim that "China is too large to have a democracy" An answer should be focused on answering that question. Apr 22, 2016 at 16:22
  • True, but it's the intention of specific people looking for only specific answers to only serve their specific intention that we have all sorts of NGOs with so called specific solutions and yet still in a mess today. My perspective is boarder but not totally irrelevant like I'm talking about cats and dogs here.
    – Felix Lim
    Apr 23, 2016 at 0:40

Singapore, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and India are all former British colonies. All have inherited the same excellent legal infrastructure from the colonial era.

HDI is a composite index used to rank countries into four tiers of human development. It was created by Indian economist Amartya Sen and Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq.

             Population                HDI(2013)      Ranking     GDP(PPP)/capita

Singapore    5,469,700 (114th, 2014)   0.901 very high  9th       $78.762
Hong Kong    7,234,800 (100th, 2014)   0.891 very high  15th      $55.167
Sri Lanka   20,277,597 (57th,  2012)   0.750      high  73rd       $7,046
India    1,210,193,422 (2nd,   2013)   0.586    medium  135th      $5.777

Source: wikipedia, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka, HDI

  • Bhutan by HDI is ranked behind India? One criticism that I would ardently agree is that HDI introduced muddleheadedness into social science. Dec 18, 2014 at 16:32
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    But I'm not against democratically-elected "speakers" whose only privilege is to say whatever they like with legal immunity. Otherwise how can we prevent another "great leap forward" and culture revolution? Dec 21, 2014 at 13:49
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    China's ground water is polluted; soil is laden with heavy metal. This new crisis is going to be worse than great leap forward. Dec 21, 2014 at 14:11
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    Democracy and mob rule has the same form of government. Dec 21, 2014 at 19:25
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    Bear in mind that Mao is still extremely popular in China. Give one person one vote, they will elect another Mao. youtu.be/tX8fooi4vhw?list=PLw9bXR1DrzP2gDZAQjmAmWehJEjDML2iu Dec 24, 2014 at 21:43

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