democracy and elections


democracy and elections
Elections (xuanxing) and, to a much lesser extent, democracy (minzhu zhuyi) were elements of Chinese political discourse long before the first outpouring of democratic dissent in the late 1970s. Many of the political debates of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century China revolved around the problem of democracy and the means by which democracy is actively assured: competitive elections. This may account for Mao’s announcement on 1 March 1953 of the Electoral Law specifying that the lowest level congresses were to be directly elected. Consistent with the Leninist tradition of popular soviets or congresses, the nation’s political and economic reforms were to proceed in concert with the ‘separation of Party and government work’, a proposal contained in the founding charters of the Party and later in the state constitution. Such separation required the creation of a new legal system to adjudicate the competing claims of civil and political authorities. However, over a lengthy interval of the ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’, from the mid 1940s until the 1980s, in which figures like Deng Xiaoping reiterated the supremacy of this version of democracy as more advanced and substantial than the bourgeois democracies of the West, an independent judiciary was not instituted and the segregation of Party from government never occurred. Therefore, rule of law and a genuine people’s democracy remain unfilled promises of the revolution and the legacy of China’s ‘democratic centralism’ has been a skein of popular protests in 1975 (Tiananmen Square Incident), 1978–9 (Democracy Wall Protests), 1986–7 (national student protests against authoritarianism and for democracy) and 1989 (nationwide democracy protests), that registered the apparent limits of acceptance of this disavowal.
In the name of the ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’, then, the Communist revolution liberated Chinese from fascism, semi-colonialism and warlordism, but rather than solving the problem of pluralist democracy forestalled it, projecting it indefinitely into the future through creative rhetorical exercises (‘uninterrupted revolution’, ‘people’s democracy’, ‘democratic centralism’, ‘socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics’) and sporadic gestures in favour of democratic procedure (‘Hundred Flowers’, ‘Four Big Freedoms’, ‘village elections’). Thus, democracy and elections define the Party’s principal contradiction: the division between the CCP (one-party rule) and the masses (pluralism), a contradiction that has become increasingly antagonistic in the era of the economic and political reforms initiated in December of 1978 at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Party Congress. For nearly twenty-five years the Chinese government has followed this path of ‘reform and opening to the world’ with near-religious fervour, but the results of this policy, both grand and grievous, have been staggering. One of the chief human consequences of this seemingly interminable reform period is mass disillusionment. Chinese society is more open and less impoverished, but its government struggles mightily with asserting its legitimacy or having it affirmed by general acclaim.
The Chinese Communist Party, while refusing, nevertheless, to loosen its grip on political institutions, does avow a surface commitment to what it identifies as a ‘multi-party system’. China has eight ‘democratic parties’ (minzhu dangpai), a number of which bear names derived from the earliest political organizations in Chinese history; they are: Zhongguo guomindang geming weiyuanhui (China National People’s Party Revolutionary Committee); Zhongguo minzhu tongmeng (China Democratic League); Zhongguo minzhu jianguo hui (China Democratic National Construction Association); Zhongguo minzhu cujin hui (China Promoting Democracy Association); Zhonggong nonggong minzhu dang (China Peasants and Workers Democratic Party); Zhongguo zhigong dang (China Zhi Gong Party); Jiu san xuehui (September Third Society); and Taiwan minzhu zizhi tongmeng (Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League). These political parties have been officially acknowledged since 1948 when each responded to the call of the Communist Party leadership for a’Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference’ and was immediately subsumed within the supervisory authority of the CCP, with which each has since been fully complicit.
Single-party rule may serve as the unbending trunk of these pluralist branches, but democracy continues to pull at it, as evidenced in its persistence in Party discourse and the writings of loyal critics and dissidents. This was made clear in a speech by Jiang Zemin in the fall of 1997 in which, shamelessly purloining the core argument of Wei Jingsheng’s ‘The Fifth Modernization: Democracy’, he asserted that ‘without democracy there can be no modernization’ and claimed further that ‘we will ensure that our people hold democratic elections, make policy decisions democratically, carry out democratic management and supervision, and enjoy extensive rights and freedoms under the law’.
These noble sentiments were not mere cant. In 1979 the Party promulgated the Organic Law for Local People’s Congresses and Local People’s Governments that called for congresses of the nation’s 50,000 townships to be elected every two years. In addition, 2,757 county congresses were to be directly elected every three years, with congresses of the twenty-nine provinces elected for five-year terms. The 1987 Organic Law on Villagers’ Committees provided procedural safeguards for proper elections, but they are not widely carried out. In 1998 the National People’s Congress announced that village committees were required by law to be democratically elected and these elections must take place every three years. Because the village committee alone is required to be elected by direct, competitive procedure, village heads may be democratically elected; however, township and county officials are not elected but appointed. Popular sovereignty is only apparent; representation is made more problematic by election law requiring that delegate representation of urban populations be four times greater than that of equivalent rural populations. Moreover, even with the increased involvement in village elections of non-governmental organizations like the Carter Center, the Ford Foundation and the International Republican Institution, observers report that only 10 per cent of these elections may be certified as democratic.
If ‘democracy’ means simply greater inclusiveness, then the opening by provincial people’s congresses of legislative hearings to the public (as was done in the fall of 1999 in Guangzhou) stands as a significant democratic gesture. And by the same token, there is a modicum of democracy in Jiang Zemin’s Sange daibiao (Three Represents) theory, announced in 2000: the Party represents the advanced productive forces (business people), the advanced cultural forces (intellectuals) and the masses (workers and peasants). And if ‘democracy’ means accountability and a margin of transparency within bureaucracy, then ‘democratic methods’ (minzhu fangfa) are now being tested at the lower levels of the People’s Liberation Army, where vacant positions are announced; standards for appointments have been published; public recommendations have been written; open examinations have been held; and candidates for military office are made public.
At present, it is too soon to tell if these phenomena are best read as the tremors of shifting political ground, and perhaps little else, or whether they signal a deliberate movement towards establishing widespread franchise. These tremors represent more likely the urgings of a new generation of Party leaders concerned with addressing the widening political chasm between sovereign and people. It is also unclear if suffrage is actually desired by most Chinese or if they believe it to be a political experiment they are capable of undertaking. To be sure, Chinese have had many theories but no real practice of democracy. Some warn that the prosperity of the present under authoritarianism should be contrasted with the inevitable chaos consequent upon the dismantling of the Party-state in favour of pluralistic representation. Whether new forms of pluralist democracy can be developed either through substantive reform of the legal system or through the introduction of independent political parties is uncertain.
Between 1997 and 2003 political reflection has negotiated a number of positions on political reform that border on advocacy of democracy and elections, while also revealing the difficulties for intellectuals and Party members to advance themes suitable to resolving the political crisis China faces. It seems that China’s ongoing dialectic of democracy and centralism demonstrates that the Party-state has yet to find a reliable method of encouraging democracy that would not also entail its own dissolution.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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