Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, August 27, 2018

Is China a democracy?

The author of this opinion piece is John Keane, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and author of ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’. Are his arguments reasonable? Should we join in creating a new category of democratic governance: phantom democracy?

Phantom democracy: a puzzle at the heart of Chinese politics
As China rapidly moves to the centre of the international order, the question that’s becoming increasingly pertinent is: what kind of a political system is this new global power? In the booming business of China watching, the standard answer is that it is an “authoritarian” regime, with qualifiers such as “soft authoritarianism”, “hard authoritarianism” and “authoritarian capitalism” commonplace. But by all accounts, China is reckoned the antithesis of a “liberal democracy” defined by open competition among freely formed political parties.

Some Chinese observers celebrate the advantages of this “authoritarianism” and welcome the triumph of a “post-democracy” freed from the curse of free and fair elections and “showbiz democracy”. Outsiders… warn of the onset of dictatorial authoritarianism as the party leadership concentrates titles and decision making in the hands of one man, Xi Jinping.

Perhaps they are right about the dangers. But what’s wrong with their prediction… is its failure to understand the striking paradox of Chinese politics today – its vaguely democratic sensibility, strange as it may sound.

From Xi downwards, state officials understand well… that powerful people should fear too much power just as pigs fear growing fat. The anxiety about unrestrained power and the fear of power-sharing, power-chastening democracy explain why China is more a “phantom democracy” (shenjingshi min zhu) – where the fear of democracy forces a style of political management that in many ways mirrors and mimics electoral democracies, where the fear of elections puts leaders in constant campaign mode.

The leadership knows by instinct that full rice bowls, skyscrapers, shopping malls and holidays abroad aren’t enough. And that is why, for some time, it has been trumpeting China as a “people’s democracy” (ren min min zhu) that conducts experiments with a wide range of locally crafted democratic tools designed to win public support…

But what exactly are these locally made, so-called democratic tools? The examples are numerous. Most obvious are the election of village committees by villagers themselves, and (less obvious) the spread of a culture of elections into social media, city administration and experiments of business houses with “consultative democracy” among their staff…

There are public forums, neighbourhood assemblies, democratic hearings and participatory budgeting experiments. Accountability and competition mechanisms are built into public bureaucracy. Chinese democracy makes room for independent public opinion leaders (yu lun ling xiu), figures such as the online satirist Papi Jiang…

These and many other locally made democracy experiments are typically ignored by those who beat the drum against Chinese authoritarianism. That is unfortunate, if only because the conflict-producing and loyalty-inducing effects of these experiments are not to be underestimated, even if they fall far short of the standards of power-sharing democracy…

But the new anxiety-fuelled efforts of the current rulers to experiment with democratic mechanisms are truly without historical precedent. The official embrace of organised market research and opinion polling techniques is an example. Since the early 1980s, the regime has built a giant information gathering apparatus. The contraption has many parts, comprising different types of information gathering, including hundreds of registered polling firms. Some of them are classified as unofficial (private, for-profit, not directly part of state structures).

Others are semi-official (for-profit, operating at some distance from state ministries); still others are controlled directly by the state, as happens at the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Centre, which uses data-harvesting algorithms to send summaries of internet chatter trends in real time to officials, often with advice about which language to use and avoid in handling hot topics. Some polling agencies are joint ventures with foreign firms and agencies such as A.C. Nielsen, Gallup, Tailor Nelsen and Pew Research Centre…

Data gathering and opinion polling machinery function as early warning detectors, protecting governing structures from political resistance and social disorder. Polls are also cleverly used to calibrate proposed policy changes considered potentially controversial, such as measures to increase public transport fares…

The idea of China as a phantom democracy, rather than a fake democracy or a system of authoritarianism, naturally prompts basic questions about the efficacy and durability of these practices, and where they are steering the political order. The short answer is, nobody knows. In politics, as in life, surprise is often the most powerful player in defining what comes next…

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