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Political Reforms in China; By S.Akshaya

C3S Paper No. 0127/ 2015



“China has settled for a one-party system after unsuccessful experiments with multi-party democracy. It cannot copy the political system or development model of other countries because it would not fit us and it might even lead to catastrophic consequences. The uniqueness of China’s cultural tradition, history and circumstances determines that China needs to follow a development path that suits its own reality. In fact, we have found such a path and achieved success along this path.

After the 1911 revolution, China led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the autocratic monarchy that had ruled China for several thousand years. China experimented with many systems- constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarianism, multi-party system and presidential government, yet nothing really worked. Finally, China took on the path of socialism. Admittedly, in the process of building socialism, we have had successful experience and also made mistakes. We have even suffered serious setbacks, after the ‘reform and opening-up’ was launched under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, we have, acting in line with China’s national conditions and the trend of the times, explored and blazed a trail of development and established socialism with Chinese characteristics.

China is undergoing profound changes and the country’s reform has entered a deep-water zone where problems crying to be resolved are all difficult ones. What we need is the courage to move the reform forward. We must get ready to go into the mountains, being fully aware that there may be tigers to encounter.” – Chinese President Xi Jinping in his speech at the College of Europe at Bruges, Belgium, 2.4.2014

Xi Jinping’s quote mentioned above clearly demonstrates that in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as long as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in control. There are no chances of a Western-style democracy of which multi-party competition, general elections and the separation of powers constitute basic elements. The PRC claims that it, instead of a Western Style political system, follows ‘socialist democracy’ in the sense that the CCP believes itself to represent the people.

‘Socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics’, according to the CCP, means that “Chinese people under the leadership of the CPC have established the basic framework of the people’s democracy consisting of the system of people’s congresses, the system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the CPC, the system of regional ethnic autonomy and the system of community autonomy”[i].  As China sees, socialist democracy is being institutionalized in the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) which allow people’s voices to be heard and develop consensus among people; they serve as link with the government, function as check and balance and help in making decisions through undergoing an extensive institutionalized process[ii].

Eight minor parties like Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang and China Democratic League, also participate in the Chinese political system. However, they have limited power on a national level and are almost completely subservient to the CCP; they must accept the “leading role” of the CCP as a condition of being allowed to exist.

At the same time, It  has to be admitted that within China’s socialist democracy  system, certain changes are happening with aim to introduce openness and accountability; reflecting  them  has been  the deliberation on modernizing the state governance system and the state’s governing capacity, at the fourth plenary session of the 18th CCP Congress (October 2014). The ongoing changes concern various fields, for example, in terms of the rule of law, public participation, democratic decision making, social governance etc. There is a clear direction from centralization to decentralization of power, from the rule of man to the rule of law, from being a regulatory government to service-oriented government.

Involvement of non-party personnel in the state administration is being encouraged.  Recruitment of non-CCP intellectuals and representatives in economic development and cleansing the internet is being pushed up (Xi Jinping, 20 May 2015)[iii]. The Party, government, and the military organs are being streamlined; there had been a membership turnover in them of about 70 percent, mainly due to the age requirement for retirement. [iv] The leaders who are responsible for the country’s political, ideological affairs, financial administration, foreign policy, public security, and military operations now consist largely of younger representatives. [v]

Holders of top posts in both the Party and the state now serve terms capped at five years, and no official may serve more than two terms. With the  Chinese government’s handling of domestic political issues such as human rights, religious freedom and ethnic tensions is increasingly coming under international spotlight,  China is addressing the discontent among the masses as well as projecting itself as a responsible power in the international system. The changes happening also relate to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Also significant are village elections introduced in the late 1980s to maintain social order and combat corruption among local leaders; by 2008, more than 900 million villagers had exercised the right to vote. In sum, it can be said that the party’s directions towards transforming itself from a revolutionary party into a governing party are coming out clear.

The CCP holds supreme position in China; there is no permission for other independent political parties to operate. Even then, within the CCP, there are various sections holding belief in different values. The party seems to be allowing such different voices in order to ultimately benefit from the opinion diversity in matters of governance.  The CCP chief and PRC President Xi Jinping has in this way come under a requirement to tackle different ideas of various groups in the country’s political spectrum. An important question before Xi will be how to accommodate the differing viewpoints of these groups.

The groups consist of advocates of the “China Model,” who dominate within the Party, the army and state administrations; the “left,” comprising Mao loyalists and    academics critical of capitalism and proponents of a strong state (the New Left); social democrats, usually academics and former inner-Party reformers and the liberals spread over media, lawyers, and more largely the urban population and private economy.  (The Diplomat, Sebastian Veg, 11 August 2014)

In spite of compulsions on Xi Jinping to deal with the different ideological groups mentioned above, there is no doubt that the CCP’s policy  will remain as one committed to  accelerate  economic reforms, but standing totally against  political liberalization in the country.  Out of the groups mentioned, it seems that much of the pressure on Xi Jinping’s leadership seems to come from liberal voices increasingly emanating from circles close to the party itself as well as the society at large; a debate is on in China on the concept of ‘constitutionalism’, which provides for every institution in the country including the CCP being accountable to the constitution of the PRC.  The authorities are tackling liberal ideas with firmness; they consider such ideas as Western inspired one and unsuitable for China.

Firm evidence to Xi Jinping regime’s uneasiness to liberal ideas is the frequent party warnings on the subject. A  CCP document issued by its General Office (No.9/2013), which was made public in the foreign media in June 2013, chose ‘constitutionalism’ for attack and asked the cadres to   guard against seven political “perils”- constitutionalism, civil society, universal values, media independence, criticizing errors in party history i.e. historical nihilism, questioning the policy of opening up reforms and opposing socialist nature of China’s development.  It called on Party members to strengthen their resistance to infiltration by outside ideas.

Catching attention is also a central party school document which raised (October 2014) eight fundamental ideological questions; important among them concerned the CCP’s role in market economy, core socialist values, theory of class struggle and the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Importantly, the  CCP Fourth Plenum (October 2014) ‘Decision’ document which, while giving approval to  the ‘socialist rule of law’ in the country, first time to  happen in such sessions,  did not fail to reiterate the party’s  supremacy in the Chinese political system. It made party’s official position in clearest terms– “governance according to law requires that the CCP governs the country   on the basis of the constitution and laws and that the party leadership and socialist rule of law are identical.

Party leadership is the most fundamental guarantee for comprehensively advancing the rule of law and building country under socialist rule of law”. Not to be missed is the fact that in the Decision, there has been no mention of “constitutionalism”, a pet word for the liberals, while the term “constitution” appears 38 times. It did not say anything about strengthening the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the power of the NPC standing committee for interpreting or applying the constitution.

Indications are that along with targeting liberals, the Xi Jinping administration  turning towards “left” ; relevant in this regard are the continuing   tighter control over the traditional and social media, silencing dissenting voices among academics and scholars, and cracking down on liberal activists, petitioners and protesters. Xi has invoked Mao, and endorsed “mass line” campaigns to improve the party’s popularity among the people.

In conclusion, it can be said that political reforms in China may gradually progress; at the same time it is difficult to visualize a change in the CCP’s monopoly of leadership. If the party does not perform, there could be a revolt from the bottom. Xi Jinping leadership seems to realize the same judging from its inclination to undertake incremental yet bold political reforms[vi].

[i] Socialist Democracy with Chinese Characteristics: Features and Strengths, Qiu Shi, 1 July 2010

[ii] C.H.Tung, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, “China: Political development and future- A conversation with C.H.Tung”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 29, 2011,   http://carnegieendowment.org/2011/09/29/china-political-development-and-future-conversation-with-c-h-tung/5i2r

[iii] Huaxia, “Xi urges solidarity for national rejuvenation”, Xinhuanet, May 20, 2015,   http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-05/20/c_134255527.htm

[iv] Cheng Li, “China’s political transition: A balanced assessment of its problems and promises”, Brookings, February 7, 2013  http://www.brookings.edu/research/testimony/2013/02/07-china-political-transition-li

[v] Cheng Li, “China’s political transition: A balanced assessment of its problems and promises”, Brookings, February 7, 2013  http://www.brookings.edu/research/testimony/2013/02/07-china-political-transition-li

[vi] “China at the Tipping Point”, Cheng Li, Journal of Democracy, January 2013 issue.

(S.Akshaya is an intern with Chennai Centre for China Studies. As a statutory requirement of her academic course in Stella Maris college, she is required to carry out research in a think tank on identified issues in China under the guidance of the members of C3S.  The views expressed in this article however are of the author.  Email id: pookisanny@gmail.com)

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