Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Democracy in the Peoples Republic

Regime in China

China recruits Westerners to sell its “democracy”
The annual sitting of the National People’s Congress, China’s well-fed eunuch of a parliament, poses several tests for foreign reporters. Though its committees may suggest tweaks to new laws, and some play a diplomatic role engaging with foreign legislators, meetings of its 3,000 or so delegates are mostly very dull…

There is the odd experience of meeting supposed colleagues who are in fact complete strangers, meaning foreigners employed by Chinese state media, or by obscure Western news outlets that channel Chinese propaganda. Some ask planted questions at press conferences. Others pop up in the state media lauding China’s political system. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, this year put out a video entitled “Chinese democracy in the eyes of an American”. A fresh-faced young man from Chicago, Colin Linneweber, strolls around Tiananmen Square while opining that “it’s widely acknowledged that a key to China’s success is its system of democracy”, and praising the country’s “stability”. He then presents mini-profiles of delegates with such day jobs as farmer, migrant worker and postman, whose proposals for making China better became law. It is tempting to be quite cross with such Westerners. Ordinary Chinese who start praising democracy on the square, a ghost-haunted, massively policed spot, would be instantly arrested. Stability comes at a price, what is more. China’s one-party rule involves more than the absence of messy things like real elections or a free press. It requires active, unsleeping maintenance by state-security agents tasked with tracking, threatening or jailing any who challenge the Communist monopoly on power.

As far back as China’s civil war, party leaders called themselves democrats, unlike their dictatorial rivals, the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang. In 1945 Mao Zedong impressed Chinese intellectuals when he assured a businessman and educational reformer, Huang Yanpei, that democracy would help a Communist government avoid cycles of triumph and decline that doomed imperial dynasties. “Only when a government is subject to the people’s supervision will it not dare to slacken,” Mao declared…

After Mao’s death, when economic opening was not matched by political liberalisation, party leaders sounded a bit defensive about that choice, assuring foreigners that only a firm grip on their vast country could avoid chaos. In the 1990s rule passed to Jiang Zemin, an admirer of Western culture who loved to quote Abraham Lincoln’s call for government of, by and for the people. Asked by an American interviewer whether China was a dictatorship, Mr Jiang replied that he was the elected head of a collective party leadership, although the method of his election had to take account of China’s levels of economic and educational development.

Jump to the present day, and foreigners hear no such half-apologies from the China led by President Xi Jinping. Mr Xi calls China a socialist, consultative democracy, featuring the “orderly participation” of the people and always under the party’s control. Today, state media hail China’s political system as far more responsive and effective than the West’s “conflict-driven”, money-tainted politics…

The Asian Barometer Survey, run by National Taiwan University, has on four occasions quizzed the Chinese public about democracy. Writing in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy, Yue Yin, a political scientist, notes that a narrow majority of the survey’s respondents in China support press censorship in the name of stability, while two-thirds say they are at ease with one-party rule. Yet accountability matters. Nearly 80% reject a government in which “experts decide everything” and 60% say the public should be free to criticise the authorities.

That suggests another way to understand propaganda films in which foreigners call the legislature a beacon of democracy. Such videos are a backhanded tribute to the West. An American’s views on accountable government carry weight, because ordinary Chinese know that American voters can kick the bums out. For now, China’s rulers still mind when their authoritarian system is judged against Western norms. When they no longer think they need the Colin Linnewebers of this world, start worrying.

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