People often ask, “Is China’s Constitution Democratic?”
Here’s what China’s constitution says about democracy in China:
The National People’s Congress and the local people’s congresses at various levels are constituted through democratic elections. They are responsible to the people and subject to their supervision. All administrative, judicial and procuratorial organs of the State are created by the People’s Congresses to which they are responsible and by which they are supervised.
Most legislation receives ninety-percent support in Congress but does this make the NPCC a ‘rubber stamp,’ as critics claim?
How Democratic Is China’s Constitution?
The ‘rubber stamp’ misunderstanding arises because Chinese policy development is managed like double-blind, randomized clinical trials, called Trial Spots. Congress has been evaluating Trial Spot data for thirty years.
Policy proposals are tried in villages first, then towns or cities. Most experiments fail there, just as most scientific experiments fail, but the successes have created the most trusted government on earth. Venture capitalist Robin Daverman describes the process at the national level:
China is a giant trial portfolio with millions of trials going on everywhere. Today, innovations in everything from healthcare to poverty reduction, education, energy, trade and transportation are being trialled in different communities. Every one of China’s 662 cities is experimenting: Shanghai with free trade zones, Guizhou with poverty reduction, twenty-three cities with education reforms, Northeastern provinces with SOE reform: pilot schools, pilot cities, pilot hospitals, pilot markets, pilot everything. Mayors and governors, the Primary Investigators, share their ‘lab results’ at the Central Party School and publish them in their ‘scientific journals,’ the State-owned newspapers.
Beginning in small towns, major policies undergo ‘clinical trials’ that generate and analyze test data. If the stats look good, they’ll add test sites and do long-term follow-ups. They test and tweak for 10-30 years then ask the 3,000-member People’s Congress to review the data and authorize national trials in three major provinces. If a national trial is successful the State Council [the Brains Trust] polishes the plan and takes it back to Congress for a final vote. It’s very transparent and, if your data is better than mine, your bill gets passed and mine doesn’t. Congress’ votes are nearly unanimous because the legislation is backed by reams of data. This allows China to accomplish a great deal in a short time, because your winning solution will be quickly propagated throughout the country, you’ll be a front page hero, invited to high-level meetings in Beijing and promoted. As you can imagine, the competition to solve problems is intense. Local government has a great deal of freedom to try their own things as long as they have the support of the local people. Everything from bare-knuckled liberalism to straight communism has been tried by various villages and small towns.
Congress is no pushover. Congresspeople visit, inspect and audit Trial Spot cashflows, calculate affordability and debate scalability and national impact. For example, when Beijing proposed to fund the Three Gorges Dam, Congress refused, because of China is a Constitutional Democracy
The dam’s cost and scale were beyond members’ imagination, retired engineers and foreign experts damned it, and a million people in its path criticized it so loudly that legislators demanded a similar dam be built nearby to demonstrate its feasibility. So the government built the Gezhouba Dam downstream.
But when planners presented the funding request again, only sixty-four percent of delegates supported it and, when the government decided to proceed, people loudly accused it of ‘ramming the bill through with an insufficient majority.’
Is China Authoritarian?
China’s Constitution is Democratic, though China’s process is neither fully scientific nor totally democratic, labeling it ‘authoritarian’–a Western concept–also misses the point. China’s reliance on data for course corrections is its greatest strength, though even solid data does not guarantee smooth sailing. Fifty percent of legislation is not passed within the planned period and ten percent takes more than a decade, thanks to the Peoples Consultive Congress, a gigantic lobby of special interest groups–including peasants, indigenes, professors, fishermen, manufacturers and Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party–who ensure that pending legislation does not damage their interests. Legislators must use both trial data and political tradeoffs to craft the laws which, by the time they emerge, have almost unanimous support. Even then, legislation is issued ‘subject to revision’ because data collection continues after implementation, too.
Congress commissioned the Guangzhou-Shenzhen high speed rail Trial Spot in 1998 before voting to fund today’s massive HSR network. In 2016 the administration advanced legislation permitting genetically modified food crops because they had promised that GM maize and soybeans would be in commercial use by 2020. Two years later–after an intense public education campaign–a survey found half the country still opposed to GM, ten percent were supportive and eleven percent considered GM ‘a bioterrorism weapon aimed at China’. Legislation was shelved.