Democracy in China: Fact or Fiction?

Friday’s New York Times (4-20-07) had a front page story by Joseph Kahn with the headline “In China, Talk Of Democracy Is Simply That.” Kahn begins by telling us that Chinese leaders are saying they want their country to become “more democratic.” Scholars and retired officials are writing articles advocating “political system reform” and more “socialist democracy.” Some are even saying China should model itself on Switzerland and its “worker-friendly democratic governing style.” I will get back to this as “socialist democracy” and the Swiss system are antithetical since Switzerland is an advanced monopoly capitalist country.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has publicly praised democracy and said he wants a more open society. The political testament of Long March veteran
Lu Dingyi (who died in the 1990s) which calls for change in the system has also recently been published.

None of this means that the government is interested in “Western style democracy.” Kahn doesn’t tell us why that is so, so I will. Western style democracy, or bourgeois democracy, has its roots in the English revolution of the 17th century and the Great French Revolution of the 18th. It is a system designed to maintain the capitalist class’s political domination and economic control and to ensure that state power does not fall into the hands of the working class.

Thus Western style democracy (including Swiss democracy) would be an inappropriate model for a communist government which represents the interests of classes antagonistic to the bourgeoisie (workers and peasants.) This does not mean that the bourgeoisie cannot be used to advance the economic development of the state and civil society, just as long as it does not gain control of the state apparatus as has happened in the former Soviet Union and other areas that were formerly socialist. A better model would be that of Cuba.

Kahn suggests that the Chinese leaders (Wen along with President Hu Jintao) may just be posing as “progressives” and trying to court younger party members and the intelligentsia in order to curry favor at this year’s upcoming party congress. The leadership is up for reelection at this congress (they have five year terms). The democracy advocates want more officials elected rather than appointed.

If this will happen or not is problematic. Officially the government says that China is already “democratic” because the party rules in the interest of the “demos”– i.e., “the people.” The question is, do the Chinese masses think this is the case or not.

Kahn next makes what I think is a false contrast. He says some democracy advocates are calling for the use of elections “as a force that can help party leaders stay in touch with the people and provide a popular check on corruption.” This is contrasted with what Kahn says would be “a new political system in which people choose their leaders in free elections.”

This seems to imply that nothing the party does short of giving up power (“a new political system”) would count as being “democratic” in the true (i.e., the bourgeois) sense. But capitalist “democracy” is not the only form of democracy possible.

Kahn says that President Hu, in an internal party document, said that “tight discipline” was needed “to prevent the promotion of a figure like the former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.” Gorbachev is considered as “a traitor to socialism.”

I think Hu is on solid ground here. China right now is in the midst of an economic revolution consisting in the transition from a backward underdeveloped country with feudal remnants into an advanced industrial state. In the process many capitalist methods are being employed (and as a consequence a capitalist class is coming into existence and growing more powerful as time goes by).

In a transitional period such as this the Party must be firmly in control of both the political and economic levers of power. It would be naive not to believe that potential Chinese Gorbachev’s abound in and out of the party. No one who has seen what has happened to the Soviet people’s material interests, health, and well being as a consequence of Gorbachev’s counter-revolution would wish this on the Chinese people (except representatives of the capitalist powers.)

The fact that “freedom” and “democracy” are being widely discussed is, however, a progressive development. That they have “Chinese characteristics” rather than “Western” is only natural. Kahn quotes the economist Lu De who says, “What we are seeing is a repudiation of Deng Xiaoping’s edict that the party should focus exclusively on economic development.” I think this is an advance. However necessary Deng’s edict may have been at the time, it was one-sided and led to important socialist values taking a back seat to economic development alone (such as the abandonment of socialized medicine and the rise of corruption.)

Mr. Lu, who advises the State Council (cabinet), also said, “I think Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have caught up with the thinking of party leaders from an earlier era, who understood that political change and economic change had to proceed hand in hand. Of course, they must move step by step. It will not be one big leap and we’re there.”

But are the leaders sincere? Kahn suggests that they are not (just look at his headline). One retired official told him, he says, that, “They want democracy to belong to the party, not to people who oppose the party. If the party can define what democracy is, then it will not be as dangerous.”

Let us not treat this quote abstractly. Classes want to keep power. This quote applies to capitalist parties as well as socialist parties. The Republican Party in the US, for example, routinely attempts to interfere with and deny voting rights to people “who oppose the party.”

They challenge and intimidate minority voters at the polls, and try and disenfranchise whole segments of the population in some states only days before an election, and they enact laws regarding voter identification cards which discriminate against poor people, the elderly and non-English speaking citizens. I read about all this frequently in the Times.

The Republicans do this to keep power in the hands of the most reactionary sections of the capitalist ruling class in the US which their party represents. They want democracy to belong to their party and they define what it is – it’s being in favor of “free trade.” Don’t think the Communist Party of China, which represents the workers and peasants of China, is any less active in defending the interests of the classes it represents. Republicans are not bothered by what their party does and Chinese Communists should be not be bothered by what their party does. There is still class struggle going on in this world after all.

Earlier I said that socialist and bourgeois democracy were antithetical, but Marxist dialectics allows for historical antitheses to be synthesized and the result to be a higher developmental phase which retains what was most positive in each of the antitheses. Thus, when Prime Minister Wen says, “Democracy, rule of law, equality and fraternity do not belong solely to capitalism,” we have no reason to doubt his sincerity.

Kahn reports that President Hu has said the party should be more responsive to the masses, and has coined the term “harmonious society.” This slogan, he writes, “has become the ideological umbrella under which China has taken the first steps toward developing a redistributive welfare program.” I think it is a positive socialist value to redistribute wealth to the people, but I have reservations about the slogan. It smacks of “a state of the whole people” and seems to deny the existence of class struggle in China. Class struggle will be with us until we reach the stage of advanced communism and a classless society (if ever.)

So, is democracy fact or fiction in China? Once you realize that a concept such as “democracy” is not a “one size fits all” sort of concept, you rephrase the question to “what kind of democracy or what level of democracy exists in China?” The answer to this question will vary with each observer depending on his or her class outlook, political philosophy, and ideas about communism.

My own view is that the party is still committed to the socialist project (or why fear a Gorbachev), which is inherently democratic, and that the level of democratic rights is steadily increasing for the people of China: the increase being directly proportional to the material well being of the population and the ability of the CPC and its leadership to build a society committed to socialist construction.

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. charlie said on May 2nd, 2007 at 6:52am #

    This was an informative article. My own position on China is that the capitalist roaders won out, and the country’s socialist economy has been slowly dismantled over the last thirty years. This does not mean that it is a capitalist country as such; the ruling party has kept in control, but is acting more and more in the interest of the bourgeoisie against workers and peasants. There is now a class conscious national bourgeoisie…

    The pendulum could swing the other way, of course, and I hope that the lessons of the past are learnt. It will take quite a struggle for workers and peasants to gain control of the Party and the state from those who favour or benefit from the market reforms. That the party leadership recognises the economic miracle may tear the country apart is positive: steps are already being taken to ensure that the economy does not destroy the land and environment. If there is an increased participation in administering the affairs of state and the tolerance of open factions within the party, China may yet be put back on course…

  2. Phillip hynes said on May 20th, 2007 at 2:05am #

    An interesting and informative article. I have actually lived in China for nearly 6 years now and my job is risk management so the political issues and social issues addressed in the article are in my opinion the most relevant and pressing for the Government and people of China today and into the future.

    There are however a raft of associated problems bubbling away under the surface that have the potential to create massive destabilising effects. For example the number of migrant workers is hugely under estimated by the Western media reports, and this is a particular section of society that is hard done by. The government realise that the migrant and rural communities are their achilles heel and are attempting to redress the problems. Although having said that the rampant corruption across the provinces is hindering progress severely and the migrant community is growing increasingly vocal. It this perhaps this area of the growing gap between rich and poor and the associated corruption that will create the circumstances for a new form of Chinese democracy in the future.