What is democracy and how does it relate to China?
Elections are the most common aspect of democracy that people will point to, but clearly having elections alone are not reflective of democracy. Saddam Hussein allowed elections. It was just that he was the only candidate and the results were fixed (winning 100% of the vote with 100% turnout in 2002). Clearly, then, the elections must be free and fair, as well as open to a wide range of parties and candidates. But how can an election be free and fair if all the media attention, often because it is State-controlled, goes on one candidate? Or some candidates are harassed and/or subject to legal action simply to get them disbarred from running, as has happened in Singapore? Clearly the overall system must allow free and fair elections to happen.
A working definition of democracy
Given dictionary definitions are severely limited in content and analysis, here are my main criteria on what constitutes a democracy.
1. Regular, direct elections for the legislative and, if the nation is a republic, the presidency.
Without them, a government can simply put off the next election indefinitely. Direct elections ensure that the process is open and less open to manipulation by special interest groups.
2. Elections are open to candidates and parties that the State does not have a right to block from participating.
There is little point in having an election if only one group (i.e. the ruling party) can choose who is eligible to stand. There may be internal discussion about what is best for the country, but there is no guarantee that it will produce as broad a range of candidates for voters to choose from as occurs in multi-party systems.
3. Universal suffrage.
Again, if the ruling party gets to choose who can vote or ensures that groups that are primarily friendly to it have a disproportionate amount of votes, the election result can be relatively easily.
4. Media freedom.
If the media is controlled by the State and reports heavily on its favoured candidates, it will make the job of others to get elected that much harder. Furthermore, if it hides criticisms of the ruling party then the electorate’s understanding of the problems facing their country will be reduced and accordingly they will let the State off easily. This extends to the internet given how many people rely on it for information.
5. Freedom of assembly, movement, speech, religion and thought.
These are some “personal” freedoms. Individuals also need to be able to speak out without fear of being arrested or harassed for expressing political views against the incumbent government, ruling party, political system, etc, so that they can make others aware of issues and points they feel are important. By forming groups (assembly) they can take action on matters they commonly decide need protecting and/or pursued.
Personal thought is hard to control, though some states try by forcing people to make self-criticisms or force them through propaganda sessions. If people find it hard to think freely then their actions will be affected as well. Being able to practice religion as people see fit is usually important to believers. If the State can control religion in various ways it can try to control thought.
6. Independent judiciary and civil service/public institutions.
Groups like the judiciary, civil service and police should primarily work for the people and not the government of the day/ruling party, though the latter may want them to be obedient. Of course the civil service should carry out instructions from the government, but it should not do things like punish individuals or groups because the government wants to limit the activities of its opponents. If the judiciary and police are not independent, individuals and/or groups can use them to unfairly punish their opponents.
7. Rule of law.
If there is no rule of law, the State can do as it pleases to those it considers a threat, regardless of whether they have acted illegally. This is a great problem because the abuse need not be authorised by any senior authority or official.
China and democracy
The Chinese Communist Party/Chinese government likes to say that China has democracy “with Chinese characteristics”. Although no form of democracy is exactly the same, those seven points I listed will normally generally be followed. When members of the CCP/government talk about “Chinese characteristics”, they are essentially trying to justify not having a democratic system by saying they get to decide what is democratic. That would be like a theoretical company “Meganet” arguing that a computer a customer found to be sub-standard according to marketplace norms was actually of “good quality with Meganet characteristics”. Whilst it is likely that China will have a political system that is not 100% the same as any other, for the Chinese political elite and its supporters to claim that China has any form of democracy is dishonest.
China is not completely without any democratic attributes of any degree. There is more freedom of movement that there used to be, even if there are still some limitations. The CCP does not seek to control thought as it used to do. In many respects it is happy for people to think whatever they like, provided they keep “politically inconvenient” thoughts to themselves. Both media and individuals have more scope to discuss issues as they see fit.
There are limits on most freedoms in any country, but in democratic states they are not as severe as can be found in China – the restrictions still in place on matters like freedom of the media and free speech cannot be described as being democratic. Furthermore, in other areas such as independence of the judiciary (which there is not), China is even further away from what can be regarded as democratic.
No one, on this blog at least, is advocating that China make a headlong rush towards democratic political reform. As the system is so heavily geared towards protecting the one-party state and the CCP, with organised opposition banned, it wouldn’t work. Furthermore I’m not especially interested in a debate right now as to whether China should even go down that route at a slower pace, given that it’s one we’ve often had before.
However, there are things that can be done to benefit China that won’t necessarily lead to an end of the one-party system but at the same time would make a change to a multi-party system easier. The key things that need to be done are to strengthen rule of law, increase judicial independence and separate public institutions and organisations from the CCP. It would make the ruling party less able to arbitrarily crack down on people even exercising their legal rights – which is of course not a bad thing but an option the CCP seems to want to have. But it would provide more justice to individuals and help reduce corruption by ensuring that officials couldn’t easily bully complainants by abusing the law and/or the power they wield.
I don’t believe that political reform can happen neither without an honest discussion on what democracy is nor the foundation to allow it to happen. It’s a good time to have the former debate and start/speed up work on the latter.
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