China’s model of democracy
Power to the people and national consensus are possible
In today’s commentary, I provide the written version of an interview of me by Global Times reporter Liu Zixuan, published in Global Times on November 6, 2022. In the interview, I maintain that the Chinese model of democracy is an excellent example of a sustainable political framework, and the basis for critical reflection for the West.
Global Times was established in 1993, as a part of China’s campaign to compete with overseas media. The English language version of the publication was established in 2009. The Global Times is owned by the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China.
Liu: What has impressed you the most regarding China's changes and achievements over the past 10 years?
McKelvey: China since 2012 has reduced rural-urban inequality, eliminated absolute poverty, has had important advances with respect to the protection of environment, and has reduced corruption. These achievements are recognized by international scholars who are able to look beyond the new Cold War propaganda of the Western governments and media.
For example, China from 2013 to 2020 carried out a comprehensive anti-poverty project. The country constructed rural roads, renovated homes, and invested in the expansion of internet access in rural areas.
Moreover, during the last 10 years, China has developed a consistent policy of developing mutually beneficial trading relations, which has resulted in a significant increase of China's influence in Latin America and other regions. Taking Latin America as an example, China's foreign policy stands in sharp contrast to the foreign policies of the Western imperialist powers, which consistently seek to impose commercial agreements that result in unequal exchanges. This is well understood in Latin America, inasmuch as it is a region characterized by high levels of historical and political consciousness, where there is well-developed understanding of the historic role of imperialist economic and militarist policies that resulted in the underdevelopment of Latin America and the Caribbean. Prominent Latin American and Caribbean leaders continually speak of the advantages of commercial relations and friendship with China.
The important role of China in the region was formalized in 2014, when the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and China agreed to the creation of the China-CELAC Forum, which seeks to expand mutually beneficial commerce and cooperation between China and the region. From the Latin American perspective, China's influence and commercial and financial presence will continue to grow. China is seen as a major actor in the development of a more just and sustainable world-system.
Liu: You are a researcher of Marxist theory, and you have published Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx's Concept of Science. How do you understand Marxism and its application in China?
McKelvey: I consider Marx to be the greatest revolutionary intellectual of the 19th century. He formulated a scientific understanding of historical and social reality based on his encounter with the working-class movement that was beginning to emerge in the West. It was a tremendous scientific advancement for humanity.
Taking into consideration the conditions of China, there was a further reformulation. These innovations included a formulation of the role of the peasants in the revolutionary process, in the attainment of political power, and in the construction of a socialist society, combined with attention to rural development. All that represents a new stage in the understanding of Marxism.
Another important lesson was that capitalism is intertwined with colonialism. China was not colonized but experienced a kind of semi-colonialism as a result of European military penetration and unequal treaties. From the vantage point of the colonized, it can be seen that capitalism was imposed on the world through colonial domination, and that colonialism came in the form of the forced implementation of economic structures that served the interests of capitalist elites. This means emancipation must address the issue of national sovereignty.
At the same time, there has to be a socioeconomic transformation, a long struggle to transform economic institutions. A new kind of economy directed by the state attends to the protection of the sovereignty of the nation and the provision of the social and economic needs of the people. This represents a new stage in the development of Marxism.
Liu: You mentioned in your article that "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." What do you think about the success of the Chinese model of democracy, or the whole-process people's democracy?
McKelvey: When I was a young man, I went to demonstrations in the late 1960s against the war in Vietnam. One of the things that we chanted was the slogan: power to the people. All these years later, I've learned by studying the examples of China and other socialistic countries that power to the people is indeed possible. It's not a naive dream. It's not only possible but necessary.
China, during the last 10 years, has reaffirmed its commitment to maintain and strengthen its structures of people's democracy. I think that China's structures of the whole-process people's democracy are the most important thing that China has achieved. The whole-process people's democracy is an alternative to structures of representative democracy. When we refer to the people's democracy, the power will reside with the delegates of the people. And it is not people's power alone. There's also the importance of mass organizations and the possibility of people participating in various organizations. The National People's Congress plays the role of decision-making, while the vanguard role of the Party is to guide, educate, and explain to the people the various contradictions within the nation.
As I mentioned in my article, the model could not be copied. I perhaps should use the word "example" to stress this. It is not a question of imitating what China has done, but learning lessons. We can creatively implement some of the principles that were developed in successful socialist projects like China. The country, above all, teaches us that power to the people is possible.
Liu: Western political parties are constantly fighting internally without solving real problems, leading the approval ratings of many ruling parties to be at a record low. Can electoral politics solve social problems?
McKelvey: I think we can learn from the examples of countries like China, Cuba, and Vietnam. They came to power through armed struggle and with the overwhelming support of the people. Therefore, they could establish political structures of people's democracy after the triumph of their revolutions. We cannot create such structures in the US, so we are stuck with the system of representative democracy and electoral politics. But it is very difficult to solve social problems in a system of representative democracy.
China gets the support of the people through an effective explanatory discourse. The state directs the economy to promote economic productivity and to establish a stronger foundation for satisfying the concrete needs of the people. China addresses the concrete needs of the people in a way that's part of a comprehensive plan. So, all of this provides us in the US with a message that we can convey to our people: China has created a process in which power is in the hands of the people.
We in the US should propose reforms that could put more power in the hands of the people. We could make some specific proposals to try to decrease the role of money in the political process, and to use the structures of public media to try to have debates among different candidates, instead of their being dependent on campaign contributions. Moreover, we could use the structures for US constitutional amendments to create permanent changes in the political structure.
Liu: You have analyzed the continuity of the Chinese socialist project in your article, in which you wrote "Western intellectuals, therefore, do not believe that a better world is possible, and they do not know that an alternative, more just world is under construction in the Third World plus China." In your opinion, why are these Western intellectuals unwilling to believe that China can build a "more just world?"
McKelvey: I think that the problem we have, the deep cynicism that exists in Western culture, isn't only because of the deceptive practices of the elites and the political establishment. It's a problem that is deeply ingrained in the culture as a whole. You may have noticed that in the part that you quoted, I refer to "Western intellectuals," which means it's not just the politicians but also the intellectuals. If the intellectuals are unable to educate the people toward the possibility of meaningful social change, how are the people possibly going to believe it? I think that the basic cause of this problem is the pervasive ethnocentrism of the West, which has not really observed what China has managed to attain. If we don't look at such examples, then it's easy to believe that a better world is not possible.
The terrible comportment of the US reveals its decadence. It has become extremely aggressive, militarily and economically, against the nations and peoples of the world. With recent developments in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, you can see European elites joining in this aggressiveness. By contrast, the alternative process in which China is playing a key role is a process of creating a better world through the nations' cooperating with one another and mutually beneficial trade. This reality is becoming increasingly evident to intellectuals in the West, and they need to draw appropriate lessons from it.
Liu: In the upcoming five years, the world will continue to face uncertainties and difficulties. What advantages do you perceive for the CPC that transcends the election cycle?
McKelvey: One of the lessons that we should learn from the revolutionary processes that have been successful in the world is that the continuity of exceptional leaders is necessary for the continuation of the revolutionary process.
In a Western representative democracy, term limits are just an idea to try to circumvent or undermine the power of the people. Because their notion is that when you've got someone that has been able to lead a process and to lead the people toward the development of an alternative, then we need to say that they're only allowed to serve for a maximum of eight to 10 years. This is a way to try to undercut the revolutionary process. The continuity of revolutionary leadership is important.
Another fundamental is the development of structures that favor power to the people instead of power to the elites, so that the state can direct the economy in a way that promotes productivity and that protects the socioeconomic needs of the people. These are the fundamentals that we learn from the example of China.
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