During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit to Hong Kong, the political conflict surrounding democracy and sovereignty in the city has been highlighted time and time again. Following what many Western media called the “broken promise of direct democracy,” the city’s pan-democrats have grown more disillusioned with the slow pace of political reform. Seeing the central government in Beijing as a fundamental obstacle to the reforms, a growing number has come to the conclusion that the city’s political independence is the only way forward for establishment of true democracy.
Yet it is rather simplified argument to say that democracy in Hong Kong is not moving forward because of Beijing’s opposition. The Communist Party of China (CPC) emphasizes the importance of democracy in various documents and does have institutions set up within the existing political structure that allow for direct popular elections. It is, then, important to reexamine why the brand of democracy espoused by the CPC falls short of Hong Kong’s (and indeed, any Western) definition of the same political concept, and how the differing definitions can be better aligned.
Section 5 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China stipulates a system of indirect democracy. Members of governing council (People’s Congress) at the lowest level of political jurisdictions (including villages, towns, and counties, and urban districts) are to be directly elected by the general population. In turn, the members of the local People’s Congress vote for municipal ones, who in turn vote for regional/provincial ones, who in turn select members for the national People’s Congress that conveys in Beijing. Just as the National People’s Congress holds power to confirm appointments of the executive leadership of the Politburo through all-member votes, the local and regional Congresses can do the same for selection of local mayors and governors.
What, in the eyes of Westerners, violates democratic principles, is the vetting of candidates before they are voted on by the common people. Chen An notes in his 1998 book on Chinese political reforms that candidates running for seats in the local Congresses must be nominated and receive explicit support before they can stand for elections. Given the outsized role played by the CPC in the Chinese party-state polity, it is unsurprising then that any potential candidate with views and ideologies different from the prevailing CPC ones will be filtered out at this stage. The vetting process, in essence, cements the CPC’s monopoly over the country’s political establishment, reinforced through an existing democratic process.
Interestingly, the concept of vetting candidates before elections is exactly the same condition the central government proposed in 2014 to Hong Kong as a condition for implementing universal suffrage. The pan-democrats’ rejection of this vetting sank perhaps the only possibility of a smooth, Beijing-approved transition to universal suffrage and underscored the inherent difference between how the pan-democrats and Beijing understood democracy. Given the political reality of mainland China, the pan-democrats’ worry that vetted candidates will only include those from the pro-Beijing camp is highly reasonable and justified.
Thus, it can be said that the vetting of candidates is the primary point of contention separating China from Western-style democracy. It is commonly argued that Beijing insists on the vetting (in mainland China and Hong Kong alike) for the purpose of monopolizing power within the CPC and those politically friendly to the CPC. Not vetting candidates would quickly lead to erosion of CPC’s political power as those from outside (and indeed, opposing) the party would become Congress members.
However, it is questionable whether suddenly stopping the vetting of candidates for local Congresses would rapidly alter the political balance in a manner unfavorable for the CPC. As the sole organized political institution in China for the past six decades, the CPC has acquired unwavering allegiance among millions who depend upon it, if only to get ahead in their own careers. Even if new political parties, unfettered by the CPC, were to form immediately tomorrow, it would take decades for them to match the organizational, financial, and communication powers the CPC presently has. The long time it would take for these political parties to mature would provide more than enough time for the CPC to craft, adopt, and implement strategies that cement its dominant position in a more competitive political environment.
Furthermore, the fact that elections occur in a hierarchical, indirect manner in the current electoral institutions favors the incumbent party. Local elections focus on local issues of livelihood, which incumbent parties generally have much more political capital to resolve quickly and effectively. Even if the opposition were to gain a majority in some local elections, their advantages in certain localities would quickly be eroded in regional and national elections if the majority of localities still favor the incumbent.
Without changes in the current political structure, even unvetted, popularly elected political leaders would be hamstrung by the CPC. The country’s dual party-state governance structure means political positions (such as governors) are subordinate to party positions (such as the regional party secretary). No matter how democratic the state governance structure becomes, it can face constraints in the face of an undemocratic party one. But given the credibility of state officials elected through a popular vote, it would be increasingly difficult for party officials to assert views opposite to those of state officials. Implementing indirect democracy without candidate vetting has the positive side effect of weakening the role of the party in the party-state structure over time, even without the need for significant structural changes.
Indeed, the primary benefit of implementing indirect democracy in China is how little political disruption it would cause in the process. All political institutions, with the exception of candidate nominations, would remain largely the same.
The result would be a “true” democracy that is beneficial for many reasons. The reform would be acceptable for the CPC, as its political dominance would not be immediately jeopardized in an indirect democracy. The ability to quickly execute long-term policy changes and grand projects, a benefit of the existing political structure that scholars like Tony Saich argue is at least partially responsible for China’s recent economic rise, would largely remain intact. The indirect election of national leaders will alleviate the fear of a rise of nationalistic populism a la Donald Trump in the United States. Plus, the Western criticism is that China is not democratic can be better parried and refuted.
Those who have sought political changes in China, including scholars in the West and the Tiananmen leaders, have been too focused on overhauling the entire system in a top-down fashion. Understandably, such proposals draw the ire of the CPC and skepticism of a stability-minded Chinese populace. If the focus of reforms is instead bottom-up, starting with the abolishing of candidate vetting at local Congress elections, there is possibility of real changes that fit with the interests of all sides. Democratic-minded China-watchers in Hong Kong, mainland China, and elsewhere, should shift their strategies to demand more realistic, incremental reforms at the most grassroots level.
Xiaochen Su currently resides in Iringa, Tanzania, working for a NGO that helps smallholder farmers to increase productivity through provision of high-quality agricultural inputs and microcredit. Su previously studied International Political Economy at the London School of Economics.