People often ask, “How democratic is China?” and the answer always surprises them.
How Democratic is China–Really?
China’s national surveys use the world’s best in sampling techniques, questionnaire design and quality control. The results, available online, are a treasure trove of democratic data and tell us how democratic China is:
- Labor Dynamics Survey (Sun Yat-Sen University),
- Family Panel Survey (Peking U),
- General Social Survey (Renmin U),
- Income Inequality Surveys (Beijing Normal U)
- Polls by Harvard University, Gallup, Edelman, World Values, and Asian Barometer.
Mao created this gigantic polling industry when he wrested policy control away from scholars and commissioned the first extensive surveys saying, “Public opinion must guide our actions.” Today, says author Jeff J. Brown, China is very democratic indeed,
My Beijing neighborhood committee and town hall are constantly putting up announcements, inviting groups of people–renters, homeowners, over seventies, women under forty, those with or without medical insurance, retirees–to answer surveys. The CPC is the world’s biggest pollster for a reason: China’s democratic ‘dictatorship of the people’ is highly engaged at the day-to-day, citizen-on-the-street level. I know, because I live in a middle class Chinese community and I question them all the time. I find their government much more responsive and democratic than the dog-and-pony shows back home, and I mean that seriously.
How Polling in China Began
Mao introduced universal suffrage ten years before America, in 1951, on the basis of one person, one vote. He even extended democracy in China to non-citizens, as Quaker William Sewell, a professor at Jen Dah Christian University in Szechuan recalls,
As a labor union member, I was entitled to vote. The election of a government in China is indirect. We at Jen Dah were to vote for our local People’s Congress. Then the Local Congresses would, from among their own members, elect the Duliang Congress. From these members and from the congresses of the great cities and many counties would be elected the Szechwan People’s Provincial Congress. Finally emerged the National People’s Congress, every member of which had in the first place been elected to a local body. The National Congress made the laws, elected the Chairman, and appointed the Premier and members of the State Council. In our chemistry group we discussed the sort of men and women who might best represent us; then we put forward half a dozen names.
Each group in our Jen Dah section did the same. We wrote all the names on a board so everyone could see who had been suggested. We put on a short list names which several groups listed. They amounted to over a dozen, any groups being still at liberty to put forward again any name which they considered should not have been omitted. They had to persuade those whose names were on the short list to remain. Many were reluctant to undertake such responsible work. We discussed each person at length. Those we did not know we invited to visit the various groups so that we might question them. At length we obtained a still shorter list of candidates and cut it down eventually, after further discussion, to the number we desired.
On election day, flags and the bands with cymbals and constant rhythm made it pleasantly noisy. We handed out voting slips at one end of the booth and students, all sworn to secrecy, helped if you couldn’t read. Then alone, or accompanied by your helper, you sat at the table and cast your votes. I was familiar with the list of names, and found a space at the bottom for additional names I could add if I wished. In England I had voted for a man I didn’t know, with whom I had never spoken and who asked for my vote by a circular letter and who had lost to his rival by over 14,000 votes. I had felt that my vote was entirely worthless. In China, at this one election, I had at least had the happy illusion that my vote was of real significance.
The Carter Center Teaches Chinese Democracy
By the 1980s the electoral process had deteriorated, powerful family clans dominated local elections and villagers regularly petitioned Beijing to send ‘a capable Party Secretary to straighten things out’.
So the government invited The Carter Center to supervise voting and, by 2010, voter turnout had outstripped America.
The Prime Minister encouraged more experiments, “The experience of many villages has proven that farmers can successfully elect village committees. If people can manage a village well, they can manage a township and a county. We must encourage people to experiment boldly and test democracy in practice.”
President Xi next asked the Carter Center to reevaluate the fairness of election laws and ethical campaigning. “Democracy is not only by people’s right to vote in elections. It’s also their right to participate in political affairs on a daily basis. Democracy is not decoration, it’s for solving people’s problems.”
In China, Democracy is a tool, not a religion.
There are six hundred thousand villages and successful candidates. They need not be Party members, and they all begin their five-year terms with a trial year.
Villagers dismiss their representatives at the end of the year if the have not kept their promises. Successful ones spend the next year adjusting their objectives.
The successful ones also elect peers to represent them at the District level. Next, district representatives elect County representatives. Eventually, three thousand elected Provincial Congresspeople–all volunteers–convene in Beijing.
In Beijing, they strive for consensus just as earnestly as they did in their villages. They’re all volunteers, ordinary folk whose progress to the national level requires prudence and common sense.
To advance under China’s tiered voting, you need support from politicians below you. Therefore it is impossible for the Party to completely control the process, and that’s why only one-third of National People’s Congresspeople are not Communists. Some belong to parties like the China Democratic League, the Kuomintang, and the Jiusan Society (whose members must have PhDs and who campaign for climate initiatives, increased R&D budgets and data-driven health policies). These parties often produce outstanding Ministers.