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Essays, States of Exception, Traditions

Chinese Democracy?

This is the second of a series of five articles on understanding China today. The articles cover politics, economics, culture and religion, since all of these are important for making some sense of what is happening. Each topic is approached from the Marxist tradition, for this is a key that is too often ignored. The articles provide a framework for how one might approach political theology in relation to the Chinese situation. The author teaches for a semester each year at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing.

One of China’s goals is to become ‘a modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by the middle of the century’. The words are from President Xi Jinping, in an address to the Australian parliament in November, 2014.

Chinese democracy? Many are those who would dismiss his words, asserting that China has a dictatorial and totalitarian government. Do not the protestors in Hong Kong, with their calls for ‘one person, one vote’, demonstrate what real democracy is? Others point out that Xi Jinping has spoken on a number of occasions concerning democracy, which he understands in a specific sense. It comes out of the socialist tradition, inherited from Lenin and developed in a Chinese context. Let me take this insight a step further and examine the tradition.

To begin with, we need to return the epithet to ‘democracy’, for we have only specific forms: 1) ancient Greek democracy, in which only adult males participated; 2) bourgeois or liberal democracy, which pretends to offer suffrage to all but restricts the meaning of ‘all’ to those who agree with the liberal tradition; 3) socialist democracy, in which the socialist party is enmeshed with the masses and expresses their will, in contrast to the old ruling class. The danger of removing the epithet is that a specific form of democracy is universalised – most notably with liberal democracy.

Of these, Xi Jinping clearly relies upon the socialist democratic tradition. More specifically, he also draws upon Mao Zedong’s deliberations over democracy. Mao distinguished four types:

1) New democracy: a half-way house between old bourgeois democracy and socialist democracy. Mao proposed this form in 1940, in pursuit of a united front with the Guomintang against the Japanese. In such a democracy, the socialists would take the lead.

2) Democratic centralism: a more properly socialist form, which is captured by the phrase, ‘from the masses, to the masses’. It seeks a dynamic relationship between freedom and discipline, between the support and influence of the broad masses (of workers and peasants) and the centralised government. Lest this be seen as another version of liberal democracy, Mao specifies: government decisions should express the people’s will, which is ascertained by seeking people’s opinions and responses, while the government should also seek to educate the people.

3) Democratic dictatorship: simply put, this is ‘democracy for the people and dictatorship over the reactionaries’. Democratic centralism focuses in the internal relationship between the vast masses of the people and the government. By contrast, democratic dictatorship targets opponents of the government, whether the former ruling class or those who seek to overthrow the current system. In other words, it is alert to treason.

4) Communist society: the eventual abolition of classes and realisation the Great Harmony (Datong). Here Mao seeks transform both the idea of communism and the traditional Confucian idea of the Great Harmony, in which extreme strife passes over to concord and peace. More recent government statements, under leaders before Xi Jinping, have favoured Xiaokang, a step below Datong. This designates a society that is communitarian, healthy, and without polarisation.

Which applies to modern China? The constitution of the CPC states: ‘The Party is an integral body organized under its program and Constitution and on the basis of democratic centralism’. In other words, the party holds absolute state power, while at the same time functioning as a representative and electoral process for engaging with public opinion. While outside observers may regard this as a blatant paradox, in a Chinese situation the apparent opposites work well together.

Recent studies have identifies the many forms of such a process: village elections with multiple candidates; urban district councils; indirect elections to county-level people’s congresses; comprehensive consultation with regional committees; rotation of power; toleration and listening to criticism (with some limitations); room for labour strikes; significant experimentation; testing of public opinion with new measures, especially via the internet; private entrepreneurs in government roles; interest groups; and so on. Not only do these provide many avenues for suggestions and proposals to government bodies, but they also provide ample opportunity for floating new proposals in order to gain feedback. Xi Jinping’s recent efforts to expand and revive democratic processes should be seen this light.

I suggest that democratic dictatorship also continues to play a role, especially in response to those who engage in treason, seeking to overthrow the government by various means.

But a question remains: has the Chinese government given up on the drive to a full communist society? Mao did, after all, indicate that the various forms of socialist democracy were steps on the road to full communism. Two answers may be given. First, the indications are that a shift has taken place: communism is not the end of the road, but the road itself. More philosophically, communism is a state of becoming rather than being.

Second, the forms of socialist democracy are plural rather than singular (as a recent white paper indicates). These forms are constantly reshaped due to changing conditions and outside pressures. At times, democratic dictatorship may appear (e.g. Stalin’s era in the USSR), at other times new democracy (Venezuela and Bolivia), and at others democratic centralism (China, Vietnam and Laos). Of course, other forms may yet appear.

We may agree or disagree with Xi Jinping’s approach to democracy, preferring to assert other types. But in order to understand him, we need to be aware of the tradition of socialist democracy.

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