China is not a democracy… or is it? The Chinese Toolkit

The following article, written by independent researcher and Friends of Socialist China advisory group member Stefania Fusero, explores China’s system of socialist democracy, providing a valuable corrective to the lazy stereotypes so widely spread in the West that China is “authoritarian” and “undemocratic.”

On December 4, 2021, the State Council of China published a white paper on the Chinese political system entitled Democracy that Works. It opens like this:

Peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom are common values of humanity. Democracy is not a prerogative of a certain country or a group of countries, but a universal right of all peoples. It can be realized in multiple ways, and no model can fit all countries… Ultimately, it relies on the support of the people and will be proven by its contribution to human progress.

Therefore, a basic criterion of democracy should be about the people, i.e. whether the people have the right to govern their country, whether their needs are met, and whether they have a sense of fulfilment and happiness. If the people are only awakened when casting their votes and sent back to hibernation when voting is over, if they are served with sweet-sounding slogans in campaigns but have no say after the election, if they are wooed during canvassing but left out in the cold after that, this is not a genuine democracy.”

Is the level of people’s satisfaction really the fundamental criterion for judging the degree of democracy of a political system? In this case, we should undoubtedly conclude that not only is China a democracy, but that it also functions better than many others, judging by the results of the study carried out by Harvard University between 2003 and 2016, which showed a constant growth of the degree of appreciation among the Chinese, reaching a level of over 90 percent of citizens happy with their government.

It is up to Chinese citizens, not to us, to evaluate or modify the political system of China. For our part, however, we can no longer afford to ignore the People’s Republic of China or rely on an artfully manipulated and distorted image of it, which prevents us from understanding how it went from being the 11th poorest country in the world when it was founded in 1949, to the second world power it is currently.

How does the PRC really work? What democratic tools has it developed in the course of its recent history?

The legislative tools: NPC and CPPCC

China defines its political system as a whole-process people’s democracy, a combination of electoral democracy and consultative democracy, which is applied through a mix of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight. It covers the economic, political, cultural, social, eco-environmental and other fields, with a focus on national development, social governance and people’s lives.

China’s legislative branch consists of two separate bodies: the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Each year in March, the delegates of the two bodies – over 5,000 – gather in Beijing for the big political meetings that the Chinese call liǎng huì (两会), the ‘two sessions’, where plans for China’s policies – on the economy, military, trade, diplomacy, the environment and more – are discussed and approved.

The first to start is the meeting of the CPPCC, which has an advisory function but no legislative power. The CPPCC is composed of about 2,200 representatives, who are recommended by the participating bodies and industries, and belong to several sectors, including the CPC, the other political parties, non-affiliates, people’s organisations, ethnic minority groups and other sectors, citizens from the Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions and Taiwan, returned Chinese nationals, and specially invited public figures from academia, the press, the arts and sports. Thus it represents a broad spectrum of political trends and socio-economic views and its main function is to collect the proposals and suggestions coming from civil society to submit them to the government.

And civil society mobilises widely online in the run-up to the two March sessions. If you looked up 两会 (the two sessions) on the social media platform Weibo, you would get a number of views amounting to 12 billion for those on CCTV and 11.6 billion on China Daily, and of comments totalling 4.8 and 9.5 million respectively (data is from 2020).

On the other hand, the NPC could be compared to the UK House of Commons or to the US Congress, with three main differences: its full session meets only once a year at “liǎng huì” to discuss an agenda set months in advance; the number of its members is significantly higher – at the last session there were 2,957, the largest parliament in the world; the way they are selected is different. Moreover, NPC deputies differ from members of parliament in the West, who are generally full-time politicians and have their own staff and campaign teams. NPC deputies are part-time and indeed many are ordinary citizens.

It is worth noting that China also applies a system of community-level self-governance expressed through villagers’ and urban residents’ autonomy, and through employees’ congresses. Residents in China’s rural villages and urban communities establish villagers’ committees and residents committees, and directly exercise their democratic right to handle public affairs and public services in residential areas to which they belong. That goes by the name of the System of Community-Level Self-Governance.

The people’s assemblies, from the NPC to community-level committees, have four main functions which they exercise at their own respective levels: 1) legislative; 2) appointment and removal of officials; 3) approval of plans for development and of budgets; 4) supervision of the various administrative bodies.

Electoral democracy

All citizens of the PRC who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election. Every aspect of the country’s political and social life is extensively covered by elections – to government institutions, villagers and urban residents’ committees, and employees’ congresses in enterprises and public institutions.

Deputies to people’s congresses at the township and county levels are elected directly by the voters, whereas deputies to people’s congresses at the city, provincial and national levels are elected by people’s congresses at the next level below. All deputies remain in office for a term of five years. Leading officials of state organs at various levels are appointed or elected by the related people’s congresses.

Thus the process starts first with the elections of the various local popular assemblies, to then gradually rise up to the formation of the NPC. Although the majority of the members of the NPC, unlike those of the CPPCC, belong to the Communist Party, some of them come from other political parties. Others are chosen on the basis of their professional credentials and have no political affiliation.

A multiparty cooperation system

In China there are no opposition parties. But China’s political party system is not a system of one-party rule. Nor is it one in which multiple parties vie for power and govern in turn. It is a multiparty cooperation system in which the CPC exercises state power. In addition to the CPC, there are eight other political parties.

That the exercise of state power belongs to the Communist Party is enshrined in Article 1 of the Constitution:

The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state governed by a people’s democratic dictatorship that is led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants. The socialist system is the fundamental system of the People’s Republic of China. Leadership by the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is prohibited for any organization or individual to damage the socialist system.

Is the function of parties other than the CPC merely decorative then? If we consider the composition of NPC, in fact, two-thirds of its members belong to the CPC and one-third to the Democratic United Front (comprising the other eight parties) and independents. As for the CPPCC national committee, less than 5 percent is CPC, 20 percent consists of the United Front and independents, 15 percent of government affiliated organs and unions, and 60 percent is representatives from different industries.

Furthermore, members of the United Front have held or do hold relatively high positions in the Chinese government as well, such as deputy governor or mayor of important provinces and cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu. Currently the vice-president of the Standing Committee of the NPC is a member of the RCCK (Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang), one of the eight smaller parties, and non-CPC members have a various points occupied ministerial roles.

Consultative democracy

Democratic consultation is a special feature of democracy in China and takes many forms. In making and implementing decisions on major issues, the government conducts extensive consultations in all fields and levels through various channels, including proposals, conferences, discussions, seminars, hearings, assessments, consultations, the Internet, and opinion polls.

On matters that have a bearing on the interests of everyone, extensive consultations will be held throughout the whole of society; on matters that concern the interests of people in one specific region, consultations will be held locally; on matters that affect the interests of certain groups of people, consultations will be held among those groups; and on matters that concern the interests of a community, consultations will be held within the community.

We have already mentioned that the CPPCC is the top national body entrusted with a consultative function. It exercises it by strengthening communication between the government and the various people’s organisations, after carrying out extensive consultations. The process ensures that ideas and suggestions of the general public flow directly to decision-makers at all levels. When a piece of legislation is proposed, seminars, hearings and discussions are held to widely solicit public opinion from the very first stage of legislation.

When a bill is being drafted, professionals and the public are both consulted, and 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.

The Chinese government is well known for its extensive use of polls and data. Government  agencies and state news networks constantly monitor public opinion through various means. The 12345 government service hotlines are public service platforms which integrate channels such as mayor’s mailboxes, SMS, mobile apps, Weibo, and WeChat to allow the public to voice their demands, and they provide a 24/7 service. In 2020, the average call completion rate of the hotlines reached 72.3 percent, and the average wait time was 16.2 seconds. The Message Board for Leaders (liuyan.people.com.cn) is a national online public service platform enabling principal officials of ministries and commissions of China’s State Council as well as local governments and Party committees at various levels to hear public concerns. Since its inception in 2006, the platform has enabled nearly 2.8 million public requests, suggestions and complaints to be heard and addressed.

Contrary to what we tend to think in the West, not only is there a civil society in China, but it does have a say in the decisions made by the government. Well yes, even in China there are plenty of mass protests, and it is also possible in fact to influence or change the course of political directives on matters such as the environment – on which there is growing awareness and sensitivity – or personal rights, as in the following case reported in The Guardian.

In April 2018, Weibo said that for the next three months it would be removing comics and videos “with pornographic implications, promoting bloody violence, or related to homosexuality”. The Internet company said the initiative aimed to “create a sunny and harmonious community environment” in compliance with the country’s cybersecurity laws.

In response, Weibo users posted photos with their partners, comments, and rainbow emojis, accompanied by the hashtags #iamgay and #iamgaynotapervert. Following the deluge of comments, Weibo said that its campaign would no longer include gay content and would only focus on checking pornographic and violent material and tied up: “Thank you everyone for the discussion and your suggestions.”

Sources

  • China: Democracy That Works, white book by The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China
  • Socialism with Chinese Characteristics—Introductory Study Guide, Qiao Collective
  • Constitution of the People’s Republic of China
  • China’s Two Sessions Explained, South China Morning Post
  • China’s Weibo reverses ban on ‘homosexual’ content after outcry, The Guardian
  • Explainer: CPC-led multi-party cooperation and political consultation, CGTN
  • NPC deputies and CPPCC members attending the annual Two Sessions in China, CGTN
  • Graphics: China’s democracy at a community level, CGTN
  • The CPPCC official site

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