When Westerners and Chinese alike are asked about China’s political system, they will respond by labeling it as dictatorial, authoritarian, and undemocratic. Nobody will argue that it is a model that Western democracies can draw inspiration from. I, however, disagree with this view and argue that two core characteristics of China’s political system define it as a capillary democracy.
First, the Chinese pyramid of authority and power stands on a foundation of elected grassroots representatives that act as capillaries for a two-way exchange of information between the Chinese people and their government. Then, the decision-making process of the government is guided by the information that has been absorbed through this foundation, which results in policies and measure that improve the livelihoods of the majority of the Chinese people. Therefore, it can be argued that the Chinese government is by and for the people. I conclude that Western democracies can draw inspiration from China limiting elections to the grassroots level and using long-term, professional, and performance-driven teams to govern and lead its people.
Before describing how China’s capillary democracy works, let us first broadly define what democracy means. Democracy is one of the words that is familiar to most, but it is often misunderstood. It comes from Greek and means rule by the people. It is not obvious, however, which people should rule and when and how they should do so. A more concise definition of a democratic government is that:
… in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.
Using this definition of democracy, let us check if China’s political system is a democracy or not. The first indication that it is indeed a democracy is that the Chinese people’s interests are the foundation on which the Chinese government is built. These foundations are made up of two grassroots organizations where information is exchanged between the people and the government: the local Communist Party of China (CPC) branch and village/community committees, with the first playing the leading role and the latter carrying out the actual work. While the CPC members are appointed, the village/community committee’s members are regularly elected by holding free direct elections.
Furthermore, representatives at the township level of the people’s congress are also elected by direct voting and are responsible for gathering relevant information about the needs and expectations of the people and sending it all the way to the National People’s Congress. In addition, more than three million grassroots organizations and millions of representatives from hundreds of thousands of villages, towns, and cities keep the central government constantly and directly connected with its people. Hence, thanks to the elections of grassroots-level officials and the vast network of CPC and government cadres, it can be argued that the government is fully informed about most Chinese people’s grievances and expectations. This structure allows information to flow from the most remote village to the highest levels of the government, and it is why this work labels the Chinese political system as a capillary democracy.
While being fully informed is a necessary condition for a government to fulfill the expectations and needs of its people, it is not sufficient. To be a government for the people, it also needs to have the capacity to make relevant decisions and be accountable to its people, thereby guaranteeing that it will pursue their interests. The decision-making capacity of the Chinese government is ensured by the fact that most officials are professionals who have a long-term commitment to their work in the government. This combined with mainly performance-based promotions results in a leadership made up of committed, experienced, and skilled individuals that are capable of confronting the complex challenges posed by running a country. (It took over 40 years of excellent public service for Xi Jinping to reach China’s presidency.)
Then, it is necessary to show that the CPC, the de facto sole power in China, is a legitimate and accountable authority. Two concepts can be considered most relevant when it comes to how authority is gained and lost in China: status and recognition.
The concept of ‘status’ is hierarchical and fluid, in the sense that the status of an institution within the authority structure can change based on its performance. Hence, the CPC has to perform if it wants to preserve its status as the leader. As for ‘recognition,’ it is also important because the status or rank of an institution has to be supported by public acknowledgement that it deserves that rank. The two concepts on which the authority stands are fluid and need to be continuously reaffirmed by the good performance of the authority-holding institutions. Therefore, the CPC not only has to perform, but it has to perform in such a way that the Chinese people feel satisfied with it. It is in this context that the CPC is seen as a legitimate authority by the Chinese people because in the last thirty years it has satisfied most of their needs and expectations.
There are at least two areas from which Western democracies can be inspired by China’s capillary democracy. One is from limiting the election process to the grassroots level, where voters and candidates know each other and the issues at stake are well understood by all. It is the responsibility of the elected grassroots officials to defend the interests of the people they represent and to inform the government leadership of their grievances and aspirations. Then, by having a government formed from individuals who are professional and have a life-long commitment to the government results in officials who build up invaluable and extensive experiences and skills. Combining the commitment and skills with a meritocratic promotion process results in a skillful, experienced, and capable leadership.
It has been shown that the foundations of the Chinese government are democratic, the government structure is conducive to successfully making complex decisions that benefit the majority of the Chinese people, and that the CPC is legitimate and accountable to the Chinese people: i.e., the Chinese government is by and for the people. Hence, China’s political system can be considered a democracy, more specifically, a capillary democracy that Western democracies can learn from.
Patrik K. Meyer is a Foreign Expert at the Department of Arabic language & Literature at Peking University in Beijing, China.