China: Democracy That Works
A less conflictive, more consensual system of people’s democracy
Parallel with the U.S.-sponsored Summit on Democracy, in which important world leaders were not invited, the Information Office of the Council of State of the People’s Republic of China on December 4 released a 14,500-word white paper, China: Democracy That Works.
The document opens with the important observation that “democracy is a common value of humanity.” With the post-modern tendency in the West to emphasize the particularity of opinions and perspectives, and with the ethnocentric tendency of the West to pay scant attention to the discourses of Third World leaders, we in the West have tended not to notice that universal human values are being emphasized by the neocolonized peoples of the world, accompanied by demands that the global powers comply with the values that have been codified in declarations and documents of the United Nations. These universal human values include respect for the sovereignty and equality of nations, the right of all nations to use their natural resources for their collective wellbeing, and the right of all peoples to self-determination. Such common values, affirmed by the great majority of humanity, are the necessary foundation for world peace and prosperity.
Democracy, China affirms, is one of the common human values. The document notes that democracy takes different forms among different peoples, in accordance with their particular histories and cultures; and no country, no matter how powerful, ought to impose its particular form of democracy on other nations. In the case of China, democracy is understood as existing when the people are the masters of the country, a condition that is created through constant struggle by the people and its leaders.
Chinese Democracy in Historical Context
Democracy That Works maintains that ideas containing the seeds of what we today know as democracy were expressed five thousand years ago in China. However, social and economic condition blocked the development of these ideas and the type of society that they implied. “Over the centuries of feudal autocracy, the people were always the oppressed and exploited classes.”1
The document further maintains that the Opium War of 1840 resulted in the descent of China into a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society. “There was no popular democracy at all and the country was on the verge of collapse. The people stood up and fought to salvage their country. Revolution and reform were attempted, and many plans for saving the country were introduced, none of which succeeded.”2
Following the Revolution of 1911, the white paper continues, Western political systems were introduced, including the multiparty parliamentary system. These efforts, however, ended in failure. But the Chinese people began to awaken. The document mentions the rise of the New Culture Movement and its advocacy of democracy and science, the influence of the October Revolution, the impact of the May 4th Movement, and the spread of Marxism. A deeper understanding of democracy emerged among progressive individuals. In this context, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was established. Since its founding in 1921, the Party has led the people in the struggle for democracy, in which the people “hold in their hands their own future and that of the society and the country.”3
During the period of 1919 to 1949, which Democracy That Works calls the period of the New Democratic Revolution, the CPC led the people in a fight for democracy and in resistance to oppression and exploitation. The struggle culminated in the victory of the revolution and the founding on October 1, 1949 of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which provided the basis for the “transformation of the country from the rule of feudal aristocracy . . . to a people’s democracy.”4
China: Democracy That Works sees the development of the People’s Republic in three stages. The first period was “Socialist revolution and reconstruction,” from 1949 to 1978. During this period, the institutional framework for people’s democracy was put into place. The CPC unified and led the people in consolidating state power, in the socialist transformation of the means of production, in the writing of a new constitution, in the establishment of a system of people’s congresses and an interrelated system of CPC-led multiparty cooperation, and in the development of structures of autonomous territories for nationalities.
During the period of “reform, opening, and socialist modernization,” from 1978 to 2012, the Party led the people in advancing socialist democracy and in ensuring Party leadership in a system in which the people are the masters. During the period, the system of people’s congresses was consolidated, and improvements were made in CPC-led multiparty cooperation and political consultation, in the system of regional ethnic autonomy, and in local community-level self-governance.
Democracy That Works maintains that the People’s Republic has entered a third stage, led by Xi Jinping and launched by the Party’s 2012 National Congress.5 “Whole process people’s democracy” was declared, in which the various necessary components of democracy are identified. Elections are the base of the process, but democracy cannot be reduced to elections. A systemic process of consultation must be developed, with respect to candidates for state offices as well as proposed policies and laws; and there must be a systemic process of implementation. The third stage of the People’s Republic has been characterized by attention to improving these various dimensions of the democratic process.
In addition to improving the comprehensive process of people’s democracy, the third stage also has been characterized by the eradication of absolute poverty, the development of ecological production, and a campaign against corruption. Roland Boer, Professor of Philosophy at Dalian University of Technology in China, interprets the third stage as responding to some of the problems generated by the period of reform and opening. Since the problems were incidental rather than systemic, they could be addressed by deepening the reform, rather than backtracking to the first revolutionary period. Accordingly, Boer refers to the third stage as the “Deepening,” and it has been successful in addressing these various social problems, and in lifting China to the level of a major global power, whose democratic theory and practice is different from that of the major imperialist powers. Boer maintains that Xi Jinping has played a leading political and theoretical role in the third stage.
The Chinese Practice of Democracy
China: Democracy That Works describes the concrete and pragmatic practices of Chinese democracy. It notes that the people elect those who hold political power, without distortions caused by financial interests, without manipulations to win elections, and without the making of promises that are not delivered. These characteristics ensure that the political process responds to the needs and aspirations of the people, and not the interests of particular classes, sectors, or groups.
Democracy That Works notes that “the National People’s Congress (NPC) is the highest organ of state power.” It enacts legislation, makes constitutional amendments, and elects the highest officials of the People’s Republic of China. There also are local people’s congresses that have corresponding authority at the levels of the province, city, township, and county. All deputies are elected to five-year terms.
At the level of the township and the county, the document explains, the deputies to the people’s congresses are elected directly by the people, in secret balloting with multiple candidates. At the higher levels, the deputies of the city, provincial, and national people’s congresses are elected by people’s congresses at the level immediately below. Therefore, the deputies of the National People’s Congress, the highest organ of state power, are elected by the people in a series of direct and indirect elections, which begins with direct secret voting by the people with multiple candidates. Current participation in the direct elections by the people is 90%, according to the document.
With respect to the nomination of candidates, Democracy That Works only states that the CPC and the other political parties consult with respect to the selection of candidates for positions in the various levels of government. On this matter, Boer writes, “Any citizen may stand for election. Candidates can be nominated by all political parties and mass organisations. A candidate can also be nominated by ten eligible voters in direct elections and by ten delegates in indirect elections.”
With respect to the above-mentioned “other political parties,” China: Democracy That Works explains that there are eight political parties that “participate fully in the administration of state affairs under the leadership of the CPC.” The relations among the parties are governed by the “principles of long-standing coexistence, mutual oversight, and sincerity.” Accordingly, “the CPC is the governing party, and the other parties accept its leadership. They cooperate closely with the CPC and function as its advisors and assistants.” The CPC consults with the other parties in various forms, including forums, talks, and writings. Members of the other parties are included in the people’s congresses and its standing and special committees; some have high posts in the government. And the CPC consults with “prominent individuals without affiliation to any political party,” known as “non-affiliates.”
Consistent with the norm of consultation, deputies seek input from the general public with respect to proposed legislation, the document explains.
“When a piece of legislation is proposed, seminars, hearings and discussions are held to widely solicit public opinion, so that the people’s will is reflected from the very first stage of legislation. When a law is being drafted, professionals and the public are both consulted, and now third parties are entrusted to draft laws and regulations on a trial basis. When a draft law is released, it is subject to public review from online channels and news media. Through local legislative information offices, people can participate in the drafting, research, revision, evaluation, and post-assessment of draft laws.”
As is evident, in Chinese socialist democracy, problems are solved through consultation. Democracy That Works declares that the Chinese system of multiparty cooperation and consultation avoids the weaknesses of Western political systems, in which political parties represent the interests of particular classes, regions, or groups, and in which destructive competition between parties provokes division in society.
The white paper declares that the non-CPC political parties and non-affiliates must adhere to Four Cardinal Principles: to keep to the path of socialism, to support Chinese people’s democracy, to accept the leadership of the CPC, and to uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Although the sworn enemies of China might want to take this out of context for purposes of propaganda, I find it no different from normal limitations in all human societies, where no one is free to reject fundamental beliefs and practices. In all societies, including modern liberal societies, freedom has its limits.
The Chinese conception of democracy in international relations
China: Democracy That Works maintains that China seeks to increase democracy among nations. China proposes “a new model of international relations based on mutual respect, fairness and justice, and win-win cooperation.” China views other countries as partners rather than rivals, and it therefore does not engage in cold war strategies. It promotes mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation among nations.
China is opposed to prevailing international practices in the world today. “The present world is far from fair and just, equal and democratic. A small number of countries ignore international law, flout international justice, disdain international public opinion, flagrantly infringe upon the sovereignty of other countries, and interfere with others’ internal affairs.”
The white paper opposes the politicization of democracy by a few countries.
“One Person, One Vote is a democratic principle, but it is by no means the only principle, nor does it of itself create democracy. However, it has long been misinterpreted and its meaning distorted by a small number of countries. The principles of One Person, One Vote and party competition underlying the Western electoral system are propagated by them as the sole criterion for democracy. A handful of countries exploit democracy as a political tool. Adopting the hegemonic mindset that ‘whoever disagrees with me is wrong’, they interfere in the internal affairs of others in the name of democracy, and infringe on their sovereignty to serve their own political interests. They also incite antagonism and secession on the pretext of ‘bringing democracy’, causing endless instability in many parts of the world and aggravating international tensions.”
China: Democracy That Works suggests to the powerful countries a different approach to international relations. “All countries, large or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equals, and should uphold the principle of democracy in international relations. Powerful countries should behave as befits their status, make the future of humanity their priority, and shoulder greater responsibility for world peace and development, rather than wielding their power in pursuit of supremacy or hegemony.”
The key to understanding is listening to others, grasping their insights, and appropriating and transforming their insights in accordance with one’s own situation. In order to overcome ethnocentrism, this practical guideline for understanding especially applies to listening to persons of other cultures, who think in the context of different horizons, perspectives, and assumptions. In this regard, no nation is more important than China, which on the basis of its particular experiences, is offering an alternative approach to a humanity in profound civilizational crisis.
The most obvious lesson to be learned from listening to China is the falseness of the Cold War propaganda against China. All persons of good will ought to utilize China’s explanations of its political system to delegitimate the Cold War propaganda in the eyes of the peoples of the West, so that the humanity would be liberated to take an approach more characterized by dialogue, cooperation, and mutually beneficial relations.
In addition, there are interesting aspects of the Chinese story, which may have relevance to the situations of the nations of the West. The Communist Party of China was formed by a small group of intellectuals who were influenced by progressive thinking from other lands and who were committed to the restoration of the greatness of their nation. The Party won the support of the people through a historically and scientifically informed program, accompanied by a strategy that protected and defended the people in their concrete situation. Once political power was attained, the Party led the people in developing a consensual approach to the political process.
China offers its model of democracy, not as a model to be copied, but as the basis for critical reflection. Perhaps critical reflection on the Chinese model of democracy is the key to responding creatively and intelligently to our problems and dilemmas.
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For those unfamiliar with fundamental facts of Chinese history, I would like to elaborate, using various Western sources. During the ancient and feudal epochs, China was among the largest and most advanced civilizations in the world. From 2220 B.C. to the beginning of the twentieth century, China developed a series of empires ruled by dynastic families. In other regions of the world prior to the modern era, empires ruled by dynastic families emerged, but none of the dynasties ruled as extensive a land area or acquired as much power as those of China. In 1750, with a population of 200 million, China was far larger than any other empire or nation in the world. (India was second with 100 million, and Japan, third, with 28 million).
Prior to the nineteenth century, Chinese cultural development was shaped by the Confucian ethic. Confucius (551-479 BCE) developed a code that facilitated social stability by promoting: hierarchy of superior-inferior relationships, including relations between parents and children, men and women, and rulers and subjects; perfection through moral education; proper behavior (right conduct) according to status; patience and compromise; and reverence for the aged and the learned.
According to my Western sources, during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Chinese economy was characterized by technological advances and economic growth. The prices of food products were rising, and there was an expanding domestic trade in cotton, textile manufactured goods, ceramics, timber, rice, tea, sugar, salt, fertilizer made from soybean, and handicraft products for farmers. A merchant class, market towns, and trade guilds were growing. Banking and finance were developing. Although international trade was limited, it was a vibrant trade with the Southeast Asia region, consisting of the importation of spices and the exportation of silk and tea. Technological advances in agriculture sustained population growth. And British cloths could not penetrate the Chinese market, due to the strength of Chinese textile manufacturing.
However, China did not experience the modernization of its industry, as did Northwestern Europe from 1750 to 1850. In Chinese economic development, there were no developments comparable to the impact of the gold and silver of the Spanish colonial empire on Northwestern Europe in the sixteenth century, which stimulated the modernization of agriculture and the expansion of manufacturing; or the European colonial domination and peripheralization of vast regions the world from 1750 to 1914, which provided cheap raw materials and new markets for Northwestern European manufacturing, stimulating its modernization.
Lacking a stimulus to overcome institutional and cultural constraints to modernization, the Chinese state became weaker during the nineteenth century, losing its capacity to carry out administrative functions like flood control and storage and distribution of grain. Demoralization and corruption in government grow. Domestic rebellion and foreign invasion became major threats.
The British invasion by gunboat beginning in 1839, launching the Opium War of 1839-42, led to the Treaty of Nanjing of 1842, which opened five “treaty ports” and gave the island of Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity. This was the beginning of what the Chinese called the “unequal treaties.” Subsequent treaties between China and Britain, the United States, France, and Russia established more than 80 treaty ports and facilitated greater penetration by Western commerce. They were characterized by low tariffs, preventing the Chinese from protecting their native industries, leading to a partial de-industrialization. The treaty system operated from 1842 until 1943.
The humiliating economic concessions to the Western powers were a consequence of China’s inability to modernize its economy, and by the beginning of the twentieth century China was no longer the great empire of past ages. The three major political and social movements of twentieth century China (republicanism, nationalism, and communism) were united in their opposition to the unequal treaties and in envisioning a return of China to its former greatness.
In Mao’s China and After, Maurice Meisner maintains that Chinese Marxism emerged in a socio-political context of anti-imperialist nationalism. In the 1890s, responding to the inability of the traditional Confucian sociopolitical order to respond effectively to Western commercial and military penetration, there emerged an intellectual tendency among the youth of the dominant landlord-gentry class to reject Confucian values and institutions. These defectors from their class were influenced by Western ideas, such as the notion that human progress, interpreted as economic development and the conquest of nature, occurs on a basis of individual initiative.
In spite of their critique of traditional Chinese values and institutions, the disaffected intellectuals were highly nationalistic, in reaction to the imperialism of Japan and the European colonial powers, which were aggressively threatening China with territorial dismemberment. Their writings and protest activities reflected “a new nationalist commitment to China as a nation-state in a world dominated by predatory imperialist nation-states.” They hoped “to build a strong Chinese state and society that could survive and prosper in a hostile international arena.”
After the fall of the monarchy in the Revolution of 1911, Confucianism was discredited further by its ties to the government of the republic, which was politically and socially conservative and corrupt. In the period 1915 to 1919, the New Culture Movement emerged, characterized by a total rejection of Confucian values and institutions. The movement had faith in Chinese youth, who were less corrupted by traditional values, and who were to be the bearers of a new Chinese culture. In addition, the Movement believed in the power of ideas to change social reality, in spite of limitations established by social and economic conditions. Its foremost proponent was Chen Duxiu, an ardent defender of French democracy and culture. The New Culture Movement, however, was socially isolated and politically powerless.
Political developments in 1919 enabled the intellectuals to overcome their social isolation and political impotence. During that year, the Western powers decided at the Versailles peace conference to transfer the German concessions in the Chinese province of Shandong to Japan. The decision provoked a demonstration on May 4 of more than 3,000 university students in Beijing. Violent confrontations with police and arrests inflamed nationalist sentiments, such that an anti-imperialist movement by students, professors, workers, and merchants emerged. During what came to be known as the May Fourth Movement, popular demonstrations, strikes, boycotts of foreign goods, and violent confrontations swept the cities of China.
In the context of this political turmoil, many intellectuals experienced an intellectual conversion. They no longer looked to the “democracies” of the West as the ideal model; they turned away from Western liberal ideologies, which sanctioned the existing imperialist world order. They looked for guidance to Western socialist ideas and Marxism, which provided Chinese intellectuals with a perspective for rejecting both Confucianism and Western imperialism. In addition, the intellectuals were transformed into militant and politically active nationalists, seeking to organize the people and lead them to effective political action. Lenin’s thought and the example of the Russian Revolution empowered Chinese intellectuals, for they provided the basis for a concrete program of political action to propose to the people.
In late 1919, Chen Duxiu, the leading intellectual of the New Culture Movement, converted to Marxism. In 1920, he and other Chinese Marxists organized small communist groups in the major cities of China. They sought to become a political voice in defense of the needs and interests of peasants and workers and to lead them to new forms of political action. In their conversion to Marxism, they continued to embrace many of the ideas of the disaffected and socially isolated intellectual class from which they emerged, including its anti-imperialist nationalism.
In 1921, Chen and another professor at Peking University, Li Dazhao, established the Chinese Communist Party, with the assistance of a representative of the newly formed Third Communist International. Initially, most of the Chinese Communist Party members were the student followers of Chen and Li. Among the young revolutionary activists was Li Dazhao’s library assistant at Beijing University, Mao Zedong.
According to Maurice Meisner’s Mao’s China and After, the Nationalist Party, first led by Sun Yat-sen and later by Chiang Kai-shek, was the principal competitor of the Chinese Communist Party in attaining the support of the people during the period 1921 to 1949. The two political forces to some extent shared the same goal of building a strong, modern state that would defend the nation in a hostile international environment dominated by colonialist and imperialist powers. In given political situations, they were allied; and in others, they were in conflict. Their conflict was rooted in the fact that the communists were committed not only to national unity and to national independence, but also to a social transformation that would emancipate the peasants from the landlord class and the workers from the comprador bourgeoisie. During its period of rule of China from 1927 to 1949, the Nationalist Party discredited itself by its collusion with foreign powers; its complicity with a declining and increasingly parasitic landlord gentry; its incapacity to respond to Japanese occupation during World War II; its lack of administrative control over its territory; and its notorious levels of corruption. Meanwhile, the Communists surged in popular support with effective administration of the countryside under its control and with guerrilla resistance to Japanese occupation.
Drawing entirely upon Chinese-language and Chinese Marxist sources, Roland Boer, Professor of Philosophy at the Dalian University of Technology in China, confirms this characterization of three stages in the development of the Chinese Revolution since 1949. However, Boer also notes two periods of deviation. First, the Cultural Revolution, when ideology replaced critical thinking, and one-person rule subverted the systemic process, tendencies that subsequently were criticized and rectified by the Party. Secondly, the “wild 90s,” which extended into the first decade of the new century, and which were characterized by ideological confusion and corruption, criticized and rectified under the leadership of Xi.