Let’s talk about democracy

In a white paper entitled China: Democracy That Works (December 2021), the authors acknowledge “humanity’s universal desire for democracy”. Let’s talk about democracy.

‘Democracy’ is a popular word, but it is often used in a self-evident way. Those who use the word ‘democracy’ in the West hardly ever ask themselves what this form of government actually means and how it functions or should function.

When Westerners are asked about the meaning of democracy, ideals such as freedom and equality, or political practices such as ‘universal suffrage’ and ‘separation of powers’, soon come to mind.

Yet there are different forms of democracy around the world.

The word ‘democracy’ stems from classical Greek, and it means something like ‘people-rule’ (dèmos-krateo). As early as the 6th century BC, the Greek city-state of Athens was experimenting with this form of government, even though one can hardly compare present-day democracy with the classical form. To name just one difference: only male ‘free citizens’ of Athens could vote back then.

The modern form of Western democracy, called representative democracy, is not only based on the ancient Greek democracy, but also builds on the ideal of ‘freedom, equality and fraternity’, which has been part of Western thinking since the French Revolution in 1789.

When the Chinese talk about their own democracy, they use the 2 symbol-word min-bēn, which means ‘people-source’. The word min-bēn already existed in the 17th century B.C., in the time of the Shang Dynasty. The Western form of democracy is called mín-zhū in Chinese, which means ‘people-decision’.

Confucius on the ideal state

From the 5th to the 3rd century B.C. Confucius and Mencius developed the Chinese theory of ‘good government’, stressing the importance of rén, meaning ‘humaneness’. Rén is exemplified by an adult’s protective feelings towards children. Similarly, a political leader following the path of rén should have such protective feelings towards his subjects. Rén is considered the outward expression of the Confucian ideals and it explains why Chinese leaders are autocratic and why Chinese citizens are not apt to criticize their leader, because they consider him their national father figure.

In ancient Chinese thought, Heaven ‘appoints’ the ruler of a state, who is therefore called ‘the son of Heaven’. This ‘son’ must follow the will of Heaven. In this way of thinking about government, the will of Heaven is equal to the will of the people. Only when a government follows the will of the people is its authority accepted. The ruler of a state obtains and maintains his authority by ensuring happiness and prosperity, ‘heavenly peace’, among his subjects. Only when a leader does not bring harmony and well-being to society, Chinese might start to rebel.

Differences between Western and Chinese forms of democracy

 A distinction that is often used to mark the difference between Western and Chinese forms of government, is the difference between government by the people and government for the people. It is clear the Western democracies, with their focus on political procedures, are forms of government by the people, where the Chinese have a government for the people which focusses on political results.

In the West, we attach great importance to the individual freedom of people. This is somewhat different in China. For the majority of the Chinese, the emphasis is clearly not on the freedoms of the individual, but on the well-being of and harmony within the larger group. This has everything to do with Confucius’ doctrine in which the collective is stressed instead of the individual.

In the West, we stress the importance of multiple political parties participating in free elections. The fact that China only has one party, the CPC, therefore strikes Westerners as totally undemocratic. But we should keep in mind here that the CPC is not a political party in the Western sense, meaning a party that competes with other parties, but more like an overarching governmental organization consisting of a dedicated elite from all sectors of society. Semantics of the word ‘party’ are confusing here.

In a country where the government is not legitimized by the results of the ballot box and therefore cannot hide behind the results of the elections, the government has to find other ways to gain the consent of the people. For that reason, consultation of the Chinese people plays an ever greater role in acquiring this consent.


China’s consultative democracy

The political system in China is subject to constant reform, but for Chinese leaders political reform will never be an end in itself. After all, it derives its authority from the realization of positive results for its population, and this objective will always be leading to them, not democratic ideals or procedures that do not guarantee concrete results.

The Chinese government is very pragmatic in its approach to further democratization and for many years it has been pursuing a twin-track policy in this respect. On the one hand, internal Party democracy is strengthened and, on the other hand, the political participation of citizens is expanded at the local level. This is done step by step: first democracy within the Party and only then outside the Party, in the rest of society; first democracy for the election of a limited number of local functions and only then for more regional functions.

In the past decades Confucian democracy has been further developed into what could be called a consultative democracy: the growing involvement of the people in the political decision-making process, without letting go of the authoritarian party leadership. This is in contrast to the Western representative democracy.

In order to achieve even greater involvement of Chinese citizens, the Chinese government has developed a number of new ways of consulting the people. Consultative democracy is deepening: both Chinese people who are already politically active and regular Chinese citizens are becoming more involved in political decisions. Of course, this is done in a way that that does not weaken its own leadership position and legitimacy.

The Internet is the ideal medium for central, regional and local authorities to consult ordinary citizens, e.g. through polling, and they make good use of it. Absorbing the public opinion is done in a structured and organized way, involving the entire civil service.

Towards whole-process democracy

Especially in the West, where democracy is the norm for many years, this form of government is taken for granted by most. Because of that, the present-day functioning of democracy, or the need to modernize it, are hardly ever discussed in the West. A disregard for the value of democracy is even causing many to become cynical with regards to their government, or to distrust their political leaders, for example by believing in all sorts of conspiracy theories that blame their governments.

This is different in China, where especially the government is actively promoting discussion on what a Chinese style democracy ideally entails and how it can be further developed. A new concept in this respect is ‘whole-process democracy’ (quanguocheng mín-zhū). The concept already popped up earlier, but it wasn’t until the sixth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the CPC, in November 2021, that the concept was consolidated. Why whole process democracy? Because, as the Chinese say, this new form of democracy “runs through all processes, including elections, decision-making, management and supervision”*.

In a white paper entitled China: Democracy That Works (December 2021), the authors acknowledge “humanity’s universal desire for democracy”. They state that “China strives to strike a balance between democracy and development”, and continue: “The priority always rests with development, which is facilitated by democracy and in turn boosts the development of democracy”. The practical approach of the Chinese to what a democracy should be, with its focus on concrete results for the people, stands out here, in contrast to the more theoretical approach and idealistic mindset of Westerners. It is as if the divide between Hegel’s dialectical idealism and Marx’ dialectical materialism still holds after almost two centuries.

The Chinese say that, for them, democracy is not first and foremost about political processes, but about the actual outcome of those processes; it is not about what different political parties promise their voters during campaigns, but about the fulfilment of those promises. Westerners would reply to his that politicians in the West are judged –and eventually re-elected– by whether or not they keep their promises and deliver results.


Democracy That Works

Whatever our point of view, the present-day Chinese political system is more about top-down consensus building rather than bottom-up bargaining to arrive at decisions common in the West. At the same time the development of whole process democracy aims at an ever-greater participation of Chinese citizens in “day-to-day political activities at all levels, including democratic elections, political consultation, decision-making and oversight”. The statement that ordinary Chinese citizens can become actual decision-makers is substantiated in the Chinese media by examples like that of a poor lady without education who made it to become a deputy to the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislature**.

Talking about whole process democracy, the Chinese also stress how this form of democracy “emphasizes solidarity instead of separation”. Looking at the present-day functioning of democracy in the West, they have a point here. American politics is paralyzed by party antagonisms and in Europe political polarization also raises its ugly head. An advantage of the Chinese democracy is that it does not separate society into ideological blocks. Chinese people are all in the same boat, which evades the feeling of being ruled and oppressed by ideological opponents. However, to this Westerners would object that solidarity enforced from above is not real solidarity, because people should be able to choose freely where or with whom their solidarity lies.

In the end, our different ideas about democracy can be traced back to the difference between an individualistic and a collectivist approach to the ideal organization of society. If we accept these differences and look for shared human goals, the different forms of democracy in the world can develop independently of each other, without fighting or excluding each other. And maybe we can even learn from one another.


* http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zgyw/202112/t20211204_10462468.htm.

** quote from https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-10-24/A-glimpse-of-China-s-whole-process-democracy–14BX3wxFJCg/index.html

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