China: Let a Thousand Democracies Bloom

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

July 6, 2007

As the 17th Congress of China’s Communist Party approaches this autumn, party organizations in Beijing are abuzz with talk of democracy. Expect lots of “democracy” initiatives at the Congress. Some of these were signaled in an important speech by the party general secretary, Hu Jintao, to Politburo members and others at the Central Party School on June 25th.

While these initiatives do not constitute democratic institutions and procedures as recognized in real democracies, they nonetheless represent serious efforts to broaden what the Chinese describe as “inner-party democracy,” “electoral democracy,” and extra-party “consultative democracy.” All of these forms go under the broad rubric of “socialist democracy” or “democracy with Chinese characteristics,” as described in Hu’s speech.

What do these terms mean in the Chinese political context? Recent discussions with high-level party organizations in Beijing offer some clues.

For the last several years, Hu Jintao has promoted “inner-party democracy” as a key to avoiding a similar sclerosis that beset the former Soviet Communist Party, the CPSU. The Chinese analysis of the Soviet Union’s collapse pointed to many causes, but a central one was the top-down, inflexible nature of the CPSU.

Hu’s idea is to enliven the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, from the bottom up, giving fuller scope to cadres to exchange views and provide input to policy deliberations—rather than just implementing and rubber-stamping decisions made at high levels. This parallels a serious effort to rebuild atrophied party committees and cells at the local level. The goal is to create a dynamic party apparatus, rather than an ossified and inflexible one.

What the CCP refers to as “electoral democracy” basically means that electoral slates of candidates for provincial and national party congresses include between 15 to 30 percent more candidates than can be elected. This is almost triple the quota from the past. The party is also experimenting with multiple candidates and contested election campaigns for local party committees at the village level. Eighty percent of village-level governments in China already have this practice, and party committees are now moving in the same direction.

Extra-party “consultative democracy” is the brainchild of the vice president of the Central Party School, Li Junru, and likely will find a central place in Hu Jintao’s keynote address to the 17th Congress.

Consultative democracy is being practiced in three principle ways.

First, prior to party cadre appointments—at all levels of the system—there is now a six-week period in which other party members and the public can comment on the candidate’s qualifications for appointment. There have apparently been a number of instances where the party’s Organization Department has withdrawn projected appointments after negative reaction was received on certain candidates.

More generally, the Organization Department has been strengthening procedures for evaluation, training, and promotion of China’s 45 million party and state cadres—in an attempt to increase competence, reduce corruption and improve governance.

The second mechanism is that local party committees are now to solicit feedback from their city and village constituencies prior to the adoption of significant decisions on public works projects and other issues. In some cases, local governments are required to open their budgets for public scrutiny.

The third mode of consultative democracy is called “multiparty cooperation.” In addition to the ruling CCP, China has eight other so-called “democratic parties”—which are represented in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, or CPPCC. Significant efforts are being made by CCP leaders to meet with these non-Communist politicians. China’s new Health and Science & Technology ministers both come from the CPPCC and are not CCP members. Expect more such non-party appointments to State Council ministries.

China’s National People’s Congress also is expanding mechanisms for public comment on draft laws and regulations. For example, its Standing Committee held six separate sessions and received more than 10,000 public comments before finally adopting the controversial Property Law at its annual session in March.

These are all examples of the “democracy wave” sweeping China. The inner-party discourse and discussions among intellectuals has been extremely animated. Many are advocating adoption of far more sweeping democratic reforms, but for the time being do not expect China’s Communist Party to go beyond those initiatives outlined above. Like other policy areas, the CCP believes in “incremental democracy.” The party will proceed carefully and step-by-step. But at least they are taking some steps—and this deserves more recognition abroad than has been given to date.