China’s ongoing two sessions can be seen as an example of the Chinese democracy. What are the advantages of China’s democratic politics? Is Western democracy suitable for China? Global Times (GT) reporter Li Qingqing talked to Michael Crook (Crook), chair of the Beijing-based International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, on these issues. The comments represent his personal views.
GT: How should we understand China’s democratic politics from the perspective of the two sessions? What are the differences between Chinese and Western democracy?
Crook: Here in Beijing we’re in the midst of the two sessions, a few thousand people deliberating on matters of great importance, affecting the lives of over 1 billion Chinese people with the resulting impact on the rest of the world’s 7 billion people. This is considered as an expression of Chinese democracy, as contrasted with Western democracy.
First, elections can be direct or tiered. Some people consider direct elections as more democratic. But when some nation states have populations of 100 million or more, direct elections are problematic. Western democracy generally relies on campaigns, which in turn rely on the media. In Western countries, most media is commercial, and whoever outspends the opponent stands a greater chance of winning the elections.
China has a multi-tiered election system. In my neighborhood I saw the voter list posted on notice boards near the community center – hundreds and hundreds of names, all living on the same campus as myself. Quite transparent. Then gradual elimination, until our electoral district came up with its delegates – to the local district-level people’s congress. The delegates of the district-level people’s congress at some point elect their delegates to the municipal people’s congress or the provincial people’s congress, who in turn will elect delegates to the National People’s Congress.
This sounds convoluted, but the advantage is that each constituency is small enough so they stand a chance of getting acquainted with their fellow representatives and can choose someone they know to represent them at the next level. By comparison, the US presidential elections have only two tiers. Voters represent some 300 million people. And 538 electors, one for each of the 400 odd people in the House of Representatives, and 100 in the Senate. These 500 odd people elect the president by simple majority.
Second, in Western democracies, some elections can be very close. That is sometimes considered to be proof of genuine democracy. I feel that simple majority is often not a good way to determine important matters. It’s better to seek greater consensus. Take Brexit. 48:52. Whatever the outcome, around half of the population is likely to be dissatisfied.
Third, multi-party or one party? The important thing is the right party, one that delivers. Most Western countries have a multi-party system, generally a two-party system. In my view, one weakness is it’s an adversarial system. The contesting parties tend to prioritize self-preservation and differentiation. We sometimes see mud-slinging campaigns and when there is a change in power, undoing of work – sometimes good work – of previous governments. For example, US President Donald Trump undoing Obamacare. There is often less stability with frequent changes of government. Sometimes it’s a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but sometimes the change does make a difference.
GT: How do you understand the problems in Western democracy? What are the advantages of China’s democratic politics?
Crook: First, voter participation. Right to participate in elections is very important, unfortunately in many Western countries, turnout is often quite low.
Another weakness in some Western democracies is voter suppression: attempts to reduce the number of voters who might vote against a candidate or proposition. This can be achieved through difficult voter registration requirements, as is the case in some states in the US. I have not heard of voter suppression in China, but I do know that under Chinese law, a citizen found guilty of certain crimes may be stripped of citizens’ rights, which include voting in elections.
GT: Some Western countries refuse to acknowledge Chinese democracy, criticizing it for not having an open opposition party. What do you think of their opinion?
Crook: As with two-party systems, having an opposition may offer alternative perspectives, which is often a good thing. But it can also be adversarial. As with most Western legal systems, it results in only win-lose outcomes, whereas cooperation, or mediation, can often result in win-win outcomes.
Actually there have been different lines within the Communist Party of China (CPC) over the last 70 years. Vastly different ideas of the best way forward have prevailed at different times: private industry – nationalization – denationalization; planned economy – mixed economy – market economy. Different views persist, and CPC policies have swung over far larger ranges of difference over the last 70 years than can be seen in most Western democracies over the same period. It often seems that in Western democracies whoever gets into power, “plus ça change” (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Some in the West have said, “If voting made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”
There is plenty of opposition in China, but it is more like “loyal opposition” – a minority party especially in a legislative body whose opposition to the party in power is constructive, responsible, and bound by loyalty to fundamental interests and principles.
GT: Many people believe that Western democracy has lost its efficiency. Is Western democracy suitable for China?
Crook: Of the varied forms of Western democracy, there may be parts that China can learn from. But China must remember that what works in one situation may not work in another. I recall the story of Yan Zi (578-500BC) visiting the state of Chu, telling the king how sweet oranges from the south, when transplanted north, become bitter.
On the other hand, sometimes different systems can lead to similar results. China and the US have very different types of democracy. But according to the World Bank, the two countries have very similar Gini coefficients – a measure of the income inequality.
But replicate with care: We have a number of recent examples where regime change imposed by Western democracies supposedly to install democracy has been a total disaster. China should choose its own way. China’s track record so far is pretty good: No wars on Chinese soil for the past seven decades, and living standards have risen tremendously. Polls suggest fairly high levels of contentment among the population.
– Global Times
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The 2018 Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) annual conference is scheduled for April 8 to 11 in Boao, Hainan Province. The forum will be themed "An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity."
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