Clinton Sees Silver Lining in Chinese 'Democracy'

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China might look like a monolithic one-party dictatorship, but it's not: Ask President Clinton, who struggled to show the world today that the seeds of democracy are being planted here. "Your achievements are a window for all the world to see what local democracy has brought to China and what a brighter future you are building," Clinton told a gathering of elected local officials in the village of Xiahe. Of course, Chinese "democracy" might be unfamiliar to Americans -- there's only one political party in the world's most populous country. Still, the recent shift from having local government officials elected rather than appointed by the party, and the reduction of their powers, is a step in a democratic direction. "Party functionaries no longer control a family's access to rice or sugar or fertilizer, and that leads to greater freedom in other areas," says TIME correspondent Jay Branegan. "If you don't need the local party leader in order to have your grain, you don't have to toe the line as much."

Clinton will be welcomed by China's leaders in Tiananmen Square on Saturday, but finding a democratic silver lining there will require some fancy footwork -- even for the U.S. president.