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Democracy in China: A Debate

Madhu Bhalla is Professor in Chinese studies at the Department of East Asian Studies, Delhi University, Delhi, India.
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  • January 07, 2013

    The demise of the Chinese Communist Party is often anticipated in terms of neo-liberal theory and the logic of civil society challenges to a contracted public space for popular representation. Theoretically, what Prashant Kumar Singh says is possible and is, in fact, what Western China-watchers and liberals have been saying for some time now. However, the People’s Republic of China is not Eastern Europe where this interaction between civil society and political transitions to democracy played out in the last century. The very fact that the Party sees political reform as secondary to economic growth gives it the resilience to manage calls for political reform. In fact, what the Party defines as political reforms are changes within existing institutions to enable the economic reforms necessary for the transition of the Chinese economy from an export driven to a domestic demand driven one. This requires structural changes, the most significant of which is the change in the role of the Party and State, from controlling and running the economy to regulating it. If there is a current crisis of sorts in China, it is a structural one with the question of leadership related to the ability of China’s leaders to steer their way through a host of contending claims, both domestic and external.

    In the recent past China’s leaders have spoken of the need for democracy but have also said that this will never be Western style democracy. Close attention to stated modes of "democratization" indicate the ways in which the Party has interpreted notions of democratic majority representation, transparency, communication, organization and the function of the rule of law to provide, what it argues, is a socialist democracy path that overcomes the lacunae in the functioning of most liberal democracies. Now, we can take this for a distortion of the notion of democracy and how it functions, and the Chinese argument that there is no one notion of democracy as a casuist one that is intended to keep the CCP in power and ensure that legitimacy deficits are met. But in a more limited way, I think, that despite the absence of the liberal idea in Chinese democracy, we might want to engage with the Chinese notion of socialist democracy, especially as it veers into notions of deliberative democracy, to assess it on its own terms, i.e., whether it enables majority representation (I guess free and fair would be the operative issues here), what the rule of law actually means and whether the Chinese are making a distinction between the rule of and the rule by law (again two different things).

    In addition, the issue of democracy in China, or at least the ideological route open to the Party, seems an open question, but only in the very long term since the Party and its ideology is still a work in progress. The Party could well make a radical revision of Marxist/socialist ideology to attach the liberal idea to the plethora of ideological additions it has so far made, much as it converted the idea of a proletarian revolution to an agrarian socialist revolution. That is, it could pay more attention to civil rights and move towards enshrining them as a set of negative rights within its constitution. In terms of extending orthodoxies, the Party has been far from orthodox so far. The problematic issue will always be the leadership issue and the time at which the Party will feel ready to share its leadership position with others within China. For now, leadership is entwined with the idea that the CCP's leadership is best suited to getting China to the top of the global pyramid. The Party seems least likely to do a Gorbachev on China.

    Despite the CCP’s argument that grass roots democracy has been established in large parts of rural China, I agree that the grass roots democracy route in China shows considerable strains, e.g. the consolidation of local power at Wukan a year after the dissent there, and that intra Party democracy arguments and calls have been largely ignored so far. But the CCP leadership seems now of the opinion that the crisis of leadership and representation within the Party and to the Party (two different things) has now come to a head. The Party is in real danger, for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, of losing its legitimacy and most importantly its leadership role in China. The loss of a leadership position speaks to all the worst fears of the CCP: the possibility of the NPC with its various socio-economic groups which may or may not have similar political views, unlike the Party's more homogeneous ideological position, or the PLA as the only other institution with the power and likely support, replacing the CCP. This would mean that China would then take a different course in its development and perhaps in its rise to power. Therefore, the Party's self-correcting mechanisms are in full force this Party season.

    In the broader context of the political transitions sweeping West Asia, while these may have transferred power to new leaderships, as in Egypt, it is a moot point whether predominantly Islamicist political parties have a liberal agenda or will even be able to provide political stability. Within China, the debate on these changes does not project them as desirable for the PRC. While China has lifted 500 million of its people out of poverty, its phenomenal economic rise has not yet created a citizenry whose per capita GDP matches that of the developed world. The broad consensus within Chinese society and the political leadership that stability is essential for China to make the transition from a middle income economy to a high income economy will tilt public pressure in the interest of stability for prosperity despite the frequent expressions of dissent across the country.

    Professor Madhu Bhalla teaches in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.