Democracy Made in China

Democracy Made in China
Opening of the 20th Party Congress. Image from video from China News Service. Original video link:

By María Isabel Puerta Riera

Originally published in Spanish by Diálogo Político on 05/10/2022

Democracy with Chinese Characteristics?

Some question the notion of a ‘crisis of democracy’ in large part over debates about the threshold used to characterize democracy. Nonetheless, most of us can agree on some minimum baseline that includes the election of representatives combined with the rights to participation under conditions of equity. Of course, we can find different democratic experiences throughout its contemporary development, but we should find some agreement on a somewhat minimal definition.

Unfortunately, we are witnessing a situation where democratic discontent happens not only in disagreements over institutions and representatives, but even more so in the narrative coming from authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes. They have taken advantage of the regression that liberal democracy has experienced. So, at the end of 2021, US President Joseph R. Biden convened 111 countries to the Democracy Summit to discuss strategies to strengthen democracy and defend it against the rise of authoritarianism, fight against corruption, and promote respect for human rights. China responded to the meeting with the release of the report China: Democracy That Works. It presents China’s vision of democracy in a political marketing effort that many interpreted as a sign of protest after its exclusion from the democratic summit.

A Counter-Offensive Against Liberal Democracy

The document is largely a counter-offensive against liberal democracy. It brazenly reinterprets China’s totalitarian system as a distinct subtype of democracy.  The white paper argues China has made substantial progress toward its own version of democracy while claiming other democracies fail to provide for the welfare of their people. Let me emphasize this point. China not only challenges our very understanding of democracy, but also distorts the reality of its own political system as well. The political regime’s aspiration is to convince us there is an association between the idea of democracy and the Chinese political regime. But it lacks any credible evidence, so the document looks more like propaganda camouflaged as a statement of principles.

At first glance, China wants to provide a definition of its version of democracy based on the political system it has already built. The crisis of de-democratization has opened an opportunity for authoritarian regimes to rewrite their history. For China, it no longer seeks to export revolution or impose socialism but rather aims to legitimize an authoritarian regime through the erosion of democracy in the West.

Contemporary authoritarian regimes want to convince us liberal democracies have failed and illiberal regimes embody true democracy. In this sense, the document reveals quite a bit in its insistence on the “comprehensive process of people’s democracy.” Moreover, it repeatedly endorses the role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a fundamental instrument of social control. This is a declaration of the supremacy of the party over the people.

In order to explore the white paper in even greater depth, I’ve broken it into three categories below:

  1. The conception of democracy
  2. The role of the party
  3. The people as protagonists

China’s Conception of Democracy

China’s depiction of democracy does appeal to humanitarian values. Indeed, the white paper returns to this theme over and over. But it takes this argument a step even further. It tries to deplete liberal democracy of its desirability in its defense of its form of democracy. It portrays liberal democracies as corrupt and a misrepresentation of democratic ideals. Essentially, it is an effort to rewrite the concept of democracy and adapt it to China’s authoritarian system.

Moreover, It argues democracy should not be subject to any standards, because it is a flexible process. It conceptualizes a ‘fluid’ approach where democracy is not pre-determined. Instead, it romanticizes “democratic diversity.” Indeed, the discursive ambiguity is intentional, because any institutional feature can make sense in a model that is not static from a normative viewpoint. The white paper clarifies China as a popular democratic dictatorship where its unity depends on a combination between dictatorship and democracy.

The Role of the Party

In many ways Chinese democracy is really just a construct of the CCP. The party constitutes the axis of life in China, so it bases its entire social structure on party intervention. The CCP is conceived as the executing body of all public policy. It is an apparatus for centralizing political decisions. The white paper recognizes there are no opposition parties in China, so it is not a competitive democracy. In addition to the CCP, eight political parties accompany it in a cooperative network.

These parties fulfill two critical functions for the political regime. On the one hand, they allow the CCP to decentralize the function of political-territorial control, which is necessary for a country with more than 1.4 billion inhabitants. On the other hand, they are intermediary organizations of local and regional scope that serve as a monitoring apparatus for political and social control and report to the CCP. In China, legitimacy comes from the CCP. The Central Committee even codified it into a resolution last November predicated on the historical achievements of the party. The white paper reinforces the CCP’s aims to expand party mechanisms beyond the State as described in this resolution.

In other words, far from being a multi-party system, the hegemony of the CCP is left unquestioned. At the same time, the CCP is not really a mass membership political party. Based on the characteristics of its membership it is actually a party of elites. Unlike democratic parties, requests for affiliation must be submitted for the approval of the party hierarchy in a process that can take years. The party’s organization resembles a pyramidal structure where its leadership holds power over all other political institutions even though CCP members barely represent about 7% of its population.

The People as Protagonists

In theory, the people are its axis. The white paper describes them as “masters of the country.” However, it also argues democracy strengthens the party. This interprets the people as a means for democratic governance through the mechanism of the party. In this fashion, the CCP is the actual axis of the system.

China’s idea of democracy does not value individuals. It views Western individualism as a weakness rather than a strength. It insists on the benefits of a popular system where the party, instead of the people, is sovereign. The party makes decisions for more than one billion Chinese citizens. Ultimately, the party dispossesses the people from any meaningful form of power.

Final Thoughts

This trend that is not limited to China and poses an additional challenge for democracies in crisis. It is not only about recovering lost ground in protecting democratic instruments and institutions but also about countering a narrative anchored in disinformation practices that are influencing the global perception about the causes of the deterioration of democracy. The debate opened by China forces us to insist on its lack of democratic values and practices. We must call out the absence of democracy in its political system, so the substance of the discussion can start from the rigor that the Chinese conceptual stretching tries to evade.

It is not a question of reducing it to a cultural problem since the experiences in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea indicate that democracy is not alien to societies where Confucianism, for example, has exerted influence. Finally, this debate presents a double opportunity to discuss the political and epistemological values of democracy. Moreover, it reminds us to recognize  and call out all forms of conceptual stretching in order to confront them with cold dose of reality.

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida. Interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics. 

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