Democracy in China: an oxymoron?

April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize may have generated international uproar about social rights and democracy in China, but Chinese leaders were talking about these ideals more than 25 years ago. Ironically, Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s 1985 speech, which expresses a desire “to expand political democracy,” for “corresponding social reforms,” and to “preserve world peace,” seems like an anachronistically appropriate response to the Norwegian committee’s decision. For Chairman Deng (like Chairman Mao), democracy is fundamental to Chinese development, but it must be combined with the rule of law and practiced under the leadership of the CCP. Most importantly, it will never look like Western democracy.

Deng and Mao were not just full of political babble—in fact, China has been running the largest experiment in democracy in the world since 1988, not with educated youth or elite society, but with a rural population of almost one billion poor and undereducated—astonishing because for many people, even in the West, the hoi polloi represent the Achilles’ heel of democracy. Initially, village self-government began as villagers’ own efforts at the grassroots level to replace the political vacuum created after decommunization, and was institutionalized by the 1988 Organic Law of Villagers’ Self-Government. The Organizational Law of Village Committees formalized village elections and ensured an open nomination process ten years later. Today, this law is alive and well and is still being amended to correct for unintended irregularities (see here and here), a sign that the law is not merely cosmetic.

A Hetao Village farm worker casts her ballot for the election of village leaders.
Source: China Elections Blog, Steve Maxwell

Even if it isn’t entirely a façade, to what extent has the law been substantiated by real impact? After all, the law presided over a period of time (1987-2007) of infamous levels of GDP growth, and when overall income inequality in China, as measured by the Gini coefficient, catapulted from 0.29 to 0.41. For comparison purposes, the Gini coefficients for the US and EU are estimated at 0.45 and 0.31, respectively. Prioritizing economic growth destabilized the countryside, demonstrated by an astronomical number of mass uprisings—26,000 in 2005 and 23,000 in 2006, and another source estimated 87,000 in 2005. The CCP has been emphasizing the need for a “New Socialist Countryside,” but top-down leadership deteriorates into rampant corruption at the village levels. The CCP’s aim in strengthening the village committee elections is to create “pressure release valves” by which villagers can feel less like the victims of the capitalist regime and more like the beneficiaries of a socialist revival. Open elections generate popular village leaders who are accountable to the village and as such, increase village satisfaction with the CCP. In other words, for the CCP, the incentive to democratize the countryside is first and foremost domestic, and is not a diplomatic pandering to Western ideals.

The CCP has a good record of accomplishing the goals it sets out for itself (with the notable exception of climate issues). So if international mediation was in fact, their priority, then they have obviously failed, not least in the publicizing of their democratic forays. But in pursuing the domestic goal for a “harmonious countryside,” studies evidence a considerable amount of success. Several economists (see here and here) conclude that because electoral reforms shift the leader’s priorities from economic growth to public growth provision, elections actually reduce village-level income inequality. Even more encouraging is that the progress seems to be long-term minded, generated by increased public investment in areas such as education and infrastructure as opposed to short-term pro-poor policies like income redistribution. Furthermore, there is a substantial decrease in the number of disputes in the villages and of the number of administrative personnel involved in village governance, greatly easing villagers’ bureaucratic and financial burdens.

Despite these positive reports, vote buying has emerged as a common, widespread and much-derided practice. If we understand vote buying to be a debilitating defect, it jeopardizes the continuation and expansion of democratic measures. If, on the other hand, we understand vote buying to be a natural, even positive indicator of the natural progression of democratic reform, then village level democracy promises a great future for China’s emerging democratic systems. It is interesting to note that vote buying only became ubiquitous after the enactment of the 1998 Organizational Law, in which candidates for office could no longer be appointed by the CCP but were subject to popular nomination. Local government officials at the township and county levels committed to not interfere with the election process, and received strong political incentives to maximize voter turnout and to ensure that the number of candidates outnumbered the positions available. Other measures to strengthen the fairness, competitiveness, and accountability of elections generated greater confidence in the elections, which now featured an emergence of non-party candidates; on the flipside, malpractices of vote buying became prevalent, such as holding banquets for potential voters, post-election promises, and an occasional instance of handing out cash for votes.

In a one-party system, however, vote buying might be the only way to distinguish a non-party candidate from the party platform. Prior to the 1998 Organizational Law, potential candidates pandered to CCP officials through bribery—vote buying, however, is a means to pander to the people, particularly if a new candidate is attempting to challenge incumbents affiliated with the party. As Kennedy notes in “The Price of Democracy,” “vote buying takes place only when the election process is truly competitive and candidates can no longer buy the government position from higher authorities.” Thus, “once potential candidates as well as local authorities can no longer resort to intimidating voters, manipulating election registries, or doctoring final tallies, then vote buying is the only method left to influence the election outcome.” After decommunization, village committees had to entice villages with food to get them to attend village meetings; after the villagers began to see that the meetings resulted in real change, they were encouraged to continue attending. Similarly, vote-buying might be an intermediate step, indicating a need for legal reforms and voter education to ameliorate an unfortunate consequence of democratic progress.

Village democracy is heartening, but inner-party democracy is an even more recent development in Chinese politics. It remains too early to assess its impacts, but as a key concept advocated by President Hu during his keynote speech to the CCP’s 17th Party Congress in 2007, President Hu emphasizes, once again, the domestic need for inner-party democracy. One of the ways the CCP has begun to introduce inner-party democracy is by presenting multiple candidates for positions at all levels. Approximately fifteen percent of the nominees for the 17th Party Congress were rejected in party ballots. For Hu, “a CCP that can accept open debate, internal leadership elections, and decision-making by ballot is a party that is flexible, pragmatic, and able to maintain its governing primacy throughout China for the foreseeable future—throughout economic prosperity and distress.” It is clear that democratic reform, when undertaken in the spirit of international pandering, can only be cosmetic at best. But fortunately for the advocates of democratic reform, the CCP takes domestic problems much more seriously. Even if Chinese leaders resist western-style democracy, when addressing domestic problems they have inadvertently resorted to democratic solutions. The progression of both village level and inner-party democracy is testament to a genuine interest in a democracy with Chinese characteristics.

On a closing note, it was during the Constitutional Convention (1787) that Governor Morris argued, “Give the votes to people who have no property and they will sell them to the rich, who will be able to buy them” (Farrand 206). Thomas Jefferson was known to dispense liquor on Election Day, justifying that they were small rewards given to constituents for taking the time and expense to exercise their voting rights. And George Washington spent a large sum of money to buy beer, wine, rum, and brandy during the 1758 election for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Indeed, we often forget our own histories when we jump to criticize others. Criticism is alienating, and in a global context, it can polarize the world in destructive ways; but if the West can refrain from filtering the rest of the world through a lens of Western liberalism, history has demonstrated China’s commitment to creating its own brand of democracy – with Chinese characteristics.


Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Rev. ed. 4 vols. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1937

Source: China Elections Blog, Steve Maxwell

This article was first published on January 6, 2011 on the Bertelsmann-Stiftung blog, <


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