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Democracy in China: A Debate

Prashant Kumar Singh is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 07, 2013

    At the recently concluded 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao made some very candid remarks on corruption, social unrest, disparity and environmental degradation in China in his work-report speech. His statements attracted wide media attention, particularly the one on corruption, wherein he had stated that corruption, if it is not curbed, would prove fatal to the CCP. He also reiterated the need for the rule of law and political reforms. Since then these sentiments have been echoed by many others.

    Hu’s speech and the statements of some other participants conveyed a sense of serious introspection. But at the same time statements such as ‘China will never copy the western democracy’ or ‘rule of communist party is a mandate of history’ emanating from the 18th party congress obscured the stated commitment to the rule of law and political reforms. The leadership appeared not to be appreciative enough of the fact that the problems cited have close links with the lack of democracy and rule of law.

    The Chinese leadership need to realize that Deng Xiaoping’s model of political-economy is outliving its historical need. This model, which has delivered substantial growth and prosperity and in the process upheld CCP rule, is now grappling with accommodating people’s ideological and political aspirations that always grow with prosperity and appreciating the role of freedom of thought, expression and activities in creativity, innovation, growth and prosperity.

    At present, the CCP mainly faces three problems: the problem of representation, the problem of discredited privatisation and the problem of corrupt and repressive governance. These have very close connections with the overarching problem of the lack of democratization and rule of law. The phenomenal upsurge in “mass incidents” in which the public normally takes on the party cadres and local administration one way or another is a symptom of this overarching problem. Mass incidents can be identified as the most visible challenge to the system. Mass incidents and big business corruption cases in which most of the times the alleged beneficiaries are connected with the party place question marks on the legitimacy of the party’s rule and highlight the party’s unjust, corrupt, inefficient and repressive image. Unemployment, economic disparity and other issues of social unrest further aggravate the situation.

    ‘Mass incidents’ may remain directionless for a variety of reasons in the short-term. But the contradiction between the society’s aspirations and the state’s political control will sharpen in the medium to long term. The CCP’s present carrot and stick “social management” philosophy is ad hoc. How far the idea of ‘deliberative democracy’ will go is also debatable, as democracy essentially lies in participation in decision making.

    It is just an accident of history that liberal democracy first emerged in the West. Otherwise, the essence of liberal democracy, of which the individual is the cornerstone and which manifests itself in representational governance, transcends cultural geographies. Only a liberal democracy based on the right to represent and right to be represented can accommodate the complexities of advanced societies. The ‘Arab Spring’ is a reminder of the relevance of the idea of liberal democracy.

    In China too, prosperity as a sole legitimating instrument for communist rule and the communist party’s restrictive nature are out of sync with the present era. The arrogance of the cadres comes from the party’s privileged membership. Rule of Law is the solution to repressive governance and big business corruption. Rule of Law means displacing the CCP from its paramount position. China is waiting for another radical departure occasioning a new political-legal architecture that would capture society’s non-material aspirations and correct the adverse effects of the Dengist economic policies. Historical evolution suggests that the new system has to be either liberal democracy or a system with a Chinese nomenclature but with a liberal essence.

    For a detailed response to these views, see

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.