Chinese democracy in action: The annual two sessions

As the first of the annual ‘two sessions’ of parliamnet opened today (3 March 2019), a rather useful and insightful article appeared in Xinhua News. It explains clearly the development and nature of Chinese democracy, or socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics. The article is copied below:

Every year, just before China’s annual two sessions, there are voices in the West declaring that China’s democracy cannot truly represent the people. But the Chinese people disagree.

Nearly 3,000 lawmakers and more than 2,000 political advisors are gathering in Beijing to forge consensus and pool wisdom for the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects, the first of the country’s two centenary goals.

This is the mission of the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), two important platforms for China’s own style of democracy.

Democracy is not a decoration, but a means of solving problems.

The true meaning of people’s democracy is finding the best way to coordinate the aspirations and demands of the whole of society and making decisions that conform to the long-term interest of the people.

It is different from a system where some here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians obtain power in turn, often failing to keep their pre-elections promises.

To govern, in China, also means to serve.

While parties in the West increasingly represent special interest groups, Chinese democracy sees people, not capital, as the most important factor in society.

Chinese leaders are listening attentively to the people and responding to their demands.

The priorities of the Chinese government are how to keep the economy growing, provide better education, housing, environment, employment and healthcare for almost 1.4 billion people and maintaining social cohesion and peace and while achieving greater prosperity for all the people.

Over the past decades, China has been improving dramatically, not only economically but also ecologically, socially and culturally. China’s independence, sovereignty, security and the interests of development are well safeguarded.

China’s GDP has grown to 90 trillion yuan (13.4 trillion U.S. dollars), contributing about 30 percent of the world’s economic growth. Now the country has the world’s largest middle-income population. By 2020, there will be no extreme poverty in China. If this is not a proof of Chinese democracy at work, then what is?

China is a large country. Choosing the right path for its political progress is a fundamental and vital issue. The country began to learn about democracy a century ago, but soon found Western politics did not work here. Decades of turmoil and civil war followed.

It was after the founding of the People’s Republic of China that the country developed its own style of democracy. The first session of the first CPPCC National Committee was held in 1949. The first NPC, the highest organ of state power, was convened in 1954. The two platforms have been witnessing the vitality of Chinese democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

The system is an integration of the leadership of the CPC, the running of the country by the people, and law-based governance, which is guaranteed by the effective implementation of “democratic centralism,” the fundamental organizational principle of the CPC and the principle of China’s political system as stipulated by the country’s Constitution.

It ensures that the CPC’s positions become the will of the country through legally established procedures, and on the other hand, the CPC acts within the scope of the country’s Constitution and the law, and leads the people in effectively governing the country and engaging in democratic elections, consultations, decision-making, management, and oversight.

Rather than creating policy conundrums or delays – as is often the case with parliaments in Western nations when the ruling party or coalition does not hold a majority – the people’s congress system lends support to and supervises the governments, supervision commissions, courts and procuratorates to achieve effective governance and rule of law.

The NPC is the top legislative body. Lawmakers must learn about the most pressing needs of the people as well as national urgencies and push forward national policies. Deputies who fail to fulfill their duties lose their positions.

Chinese democracy also includes multi-level and institutionalized consultation. The CPPCC is an important organ for multiparty cooperation and political consultation led by the CPC.

The CPC and non-Communist parties cooperate with each other, working together for the advancement of socialism and striving to improve people’s standard of living. The relationship maintains political stability and social harmony and ensures efficient policy making and implementation.

There are also various mechanisms available for the public to give input into policy making, including self-governance at the grassroots level such as village committees.

Some traditional Western political theories state that it is inevitable that China will pursue Western democracy once it becomes well-off, eventually fully following Western political systems.

This reflects arrogance and self-indulgence, a warning signal that the model is in decline.

China wants to learn as much as possible from the West and work with the West. However, the Chinese are, just as many Westerners have become, wary of the deep troubles of a capital-manipulated and conflict-driven model of democracy.

China has never sought to export its system to other countries. Its example just shows there is more than one model of democracy in the world that can produce good governance.

If the West wants to retain and renew its values, it is time to stop judging other countries by Western norms and rules.

Democracy is a living organism. Any model that refuses to develop to meet the demands of time will only end up in the dust.

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Top ten issues for this year’s parliamentary sessions in China

On Sunday, 3 March, 2019, the annual ‘two sessions’ will meet once again in Beijing. They are the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the highest legislative and advisory bodies in the country. Too little is known outside China about these core structures of Chinese governance, which involves more than 5,000 legislators and avisors, so here is a summary of results from a survey conducted by the People’s Daily. The survery, which asked people to list the top ten issues of public concern, garnered more than 4.4 million responses.

The benefits of lifting the presidential (and vice-presidential) term limits in China

Amidst all the uninformed opinions about the constitutional changes at China’s recent two sessions of parliament, this piece by Eric Li is the most balanced I have read (in the Global Times.). The only point with I disagree somewhat concerns the merging party and state. The reason is that Xi Jinping has been promoting China’s unique multi-party system more than ever before. The nine political parties all play a role.

Why Xi’s lifting of term limits is a good thing

SHANGHAI — Western media and the Chinese chattering classes have been in an uproar since China’s National People’s Congress approved constitutional changes that included lifting the two-term presidential limit. China approves “president for life,” proclaimed Western media.

But this misinterprets the nature of the development. And the world appears to be overlooking consequential political reforms taking place in China that will impact our collective future for the better.

The presidential term limit has no bearing on how long a top Chinese leader can stay in power and lifting it by no means allows anyone to rule for life. In fact, the position of real power — the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee — has never had term limits. The most recent draft of China’s constitution, written in 1982, set the presidency as a symbolic head of state, with no actual power. Although the two offices happened to have been occupied by the same person for more than 25 years since Jiang Zemin, the institutional mechanics of the offices are rather separate.

Formally unifying these two positions at the very top will transform the entire Chinese governance structure by institutionally fusing the party and the state. This reform is good for China simply because the party has developed into the most competent national political institution in the world today.

As to the issue of lifetime rule, the party does have institutional mechanisms, both mandatory and customary, that govern officials’ retirement. In fact, the party constitution specifically states that no position has lifetime tenure. This system has been developed over decades and covers the many tiers of the party’s organizational structure, from the Politburo to ministerial and provincial positions. Within this framework, it is possible for Xi to lead the country for longer than his recent predecessors. But not for life.

Age limits have varied over time and differ based on position. The custom for most senior leaders in recent years has been to retire at the age of 68, which is often extended to complete a term. Exceptions have been made for the position of general secretary (one served, successfully, through his late 70’s). But still, it’s always finite.

However, eliminating the presidential term limit is still significant. It is part and parcel of highly consequential and, in my view, constructive political reforms. These reforms were set in motion at the 18th party congress held in 2012 and were a particular focus at the third plenum in 2013. I wrote then that the fusing of party and state would be the most far-reaching political transformation in Chinese governance. The completion of the current constitutional reform is the culmination of that process.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the leadership of the party has been central to China’s political DNA. However, institutionally the system has gone through significant growing pains. At first, China adopted the Soviet system that separated, at least on the institutional level, the party and government. The top organs — the party central committee, the National People’s Congress and the state council were parallel. But in reality, the party led everything. This produced significant conflicts that some have blamed as partially responsible for the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

When former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began his reforms over 40 years ago, he pushed a policy of administrative separation between party and government. But that was due to the particular circumstances of post-Cultural Revolution China. At the time, many senior leaders who were purged by Mao Zedong were rehabilitated and returned to their previous positions.

The party was just emerging from a period of upheaval, and those officials all came from the era of the centrally planned economy. China needed market economics. Deng’s policy unleashed younger and more forward-looking governing forces to execute the reform agenda. But more importantly, he also focused great energy on rebuilding the party institution.

In the following decades, the party has developed into one of the most elaborate and effective governing institutions in the world and, I would argue, in history. It is responsible for achieving what’s known as the greatest improvement in standard of living for the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.

The party has now stepped forward to the front and center of Chinese governance. This constitutional reform further enshrines the party’s political centrality by extending the wording of party leadership from the preamble to the body of the constitution. At the governing level, the reform creates a super agency, the National Supervisory Commission, to combat corruption. It is an extension of the party’s Central Disciplinary and Inspection Commission and will further institutionalize the tremendous anti-corruption drive executed by the party commission over the past five years.

It is in this context that the removal of a presidential term limit is so significant. While the party’s leadership has always been politically paramount, the administrative separation of party and government has produced institutional contradictions and confusion. As China increasingly becomes a major power in the world, the office of the president has assumed greater importance, especially in China’s interactions with the rest of the world.

Bringing the presidency’s institutional mechanics in line with the office of party general secretary, and for them to be occupied by the same person, will create a more efficient and coherent governing structure and more transparency and predictability in China’s dealings with the world. It lifts the veil of pretense that, somehow, the party and state governance are not one, which is untrue and wholly unnecessary and counterproductive at this stage of China’s development. It signals the maturing of the Chinese political system that shows the world clearly how decisions are made and who is in charge.

The current Chinese system is a good combination of principle and flexibility. The principle of no lifetime tenure, combined with collective leadership and retirement rules, prevent unchecked rule for life by the wrong person. But a degree of flexibility in the retirement mechanism allows the right leader to govern longer. Xi will retire someday. But as long as he continues to lead successfully, that day will be a long way off.

I dare say that Xi has done more for China in five years than Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama combined did for the United States in 25 years. On the watches of those three American leaders, with slow and incompetent reforms and major catastrophes such as the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the U.S. managed to squander what was arguably the greatest advantage any nation ever had in history at the end of the Cold War and is now mired in dysfunction and losing its leadership position in the world. Meanwhile, opinion surveys, such as this one by the Harvard Kennedy School, show Xi consistently receiving the highest domestic approval ratings of any world leader.

It would be a mistake to judge that Xi is putting himself above the party and the nation. On the contrary, a major theme of his governing philosophy has been the centrality of the party as an institution. And in today’s China, both society and the party are much more robust and pluralistic than the time when Deng came to power.

The feedback mechanisms and channels available to China’s leaders to effectively respond to the needs of society are much more abundant today. It was popular discontent with pollution that spurred Xi’s administration into action and achieved, in just three years, the extraordinary improvement in air quality that took London and Los Angeles decades to accomplish — and the latter went through major deindustrialization, while China remains a growing industrial power.

Xi is now beginning his second term. No one knows for sure how long he will serve. But with his impressive life track record, it is understandable that there are genuine sentiments for him to lead China for a long time. Sadly, liberal democracy in its current state seems incapable of producing a leader half as good.

China’s multi-party system: ‘a great contribution to political civilisation’

The all-important ‘two sessions’ (lianghui) are underway in Beijing. These are the National People’s Congress (NPC), the highest law-making body in China, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which provides advice and recommendations to the NPC. You can watch a brief video about the two sessions of 2018 here. These two sessions are perhaps even more important this year after the landmark 19th congress of the CPC in November of 2016.

During the first session of the CPPCC, Xi Jinping and others met with representatives from other political parties, those without party affiliation and returned overseas Chinese. Among other items, Xi stressed the following (quoting from Xinhua News – see also a later piece in the People’s Daily):

President Xi Jinping Sunday called the system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) “a great contribution to political civilization of humanity.”

It is “a new type of party system growing from China’s soil,” said Xi …

Xi said the system is new because it combines Marxist political party theories with China’s reality, and truly, extensively and in the long term represents fundamental interests of all people and all ethnic groups and fulfills their aspiration, avoiding the defects of the old-fashioned party system which represents only a selective few or the vested interest.

The Chinese system is new, Xi said, because it unites all political parties and people without party affiliation toward a common goal, effectively preventing the flaws of the absence of oversight in one-party rule, or power rotation and nasty competition among multiple political parties.

The Chinese system is new, Xi said, also because it pools ideas and suggestions through institutional, procedural, and standardized arrangements and develops a scientific and democratic decision making mechanism.

It steers away from another weakness of the old-fashioned party system, in which decision making and governance, confined by interests of different political parties, classes, regions and groups, tears the society apart, he said.

Fitting China’s reality and fine traditional culture, it is “a great contribution to political civilization of humanity,” he said.

Xi said upholding the CPC leadership was not meant to do away with democracy.

Instead, it aims to create a form of democracy that is broader and more effective, he said.

The CPC-led system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation stresses both the CPC leadership and socialist democracy which features political consultation, participation in the deliberation of state affairs, and democratic supervision, he said.