Following Friday’s press conference for the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the annual plenary sessions of China’s top legislative and political advisory bodies will kick off in the usual fashion on Saturday. That means China’s eight non-communist parties, known in Mandarin as the “democratic parties,” will no doubt become the focus of public attention once again.
China’s democratic parties have been described as empty shells by Western media outlets in their coverage of the Two Sessions over the past decades. The assumption stems from the fact that democratic parties are not vested with substantial power by the Chinese Constitution, despite their constitutionally endowed position. However, in reality, democratic parties and their political functions are much more dynamic than Western media coverage conveys.
To figure out whether democratic parties are merely insignificant decoration in China’s political system, we should examine the way they participate in politics. Democratic parties now have a combined membership of more than 700,000 nationwide. I’m one of them. I joined the Jiusan Society, which is mainly composed of intellectuals in the fields of science, education, medicine, and culture, in Beijing in 2015. Joining a democratic party is not an easy thing; applicants not only have to be at least mid-level intellectuals or entrepreneurs, but also need a reference from senior party members. The latter is the most difficult part.
Despite the difficulty, one of the major incentives for joining the democratic parties is the chance to have a say in public affairs. At the local level, the party committee has improved the mechanism of political consultation to encourage members to contribute useful policy suggestions. Take the Jiusan Society as an example. Ordinary party members like me have two major ways to participate in government affairs. The first option is to do a policy survey. To do so, members need to draft a brief plan, including problem description, object, and research design, to their local branch, to be submitted each March. If project plans are approved, members will receive research funding and have six months to finish the research.
A meeting is then held around September to discuss the research results. I once attended this meeting, and the heated debates went far beyond my expectations. The then-vice chairman of Jiusan Society urged members to provide workable suggestions rather than empty words. He criticized some members for spending too much time on describing problems rather than providing useful solutions.
Unlike the stereotypical portrayal by Western media, members of democratic parties express very critical opinions at internal meetings. “In order to put forward constructive suggestions, we speak pretty openly to each other behind closed doors,” a central committee member of Jiusan Society said to me. This is true not only for discussions of local policy but also state policy – scientists from Jiusan Society raised the earliest warnings about the Three Gorges Dam, China’s ambitious hydropower plant, and suggested efforts to preserve the ecosystem and make use of resources in a rational manner.
Compared with the time-consuming policy survey, the second way to participate in the policy process is a special reporting system that enables members to provide policy suggestions rapidly. Whenever party members identify a problem, they can quickly file a report of approximately 1,000 words, including a summary of the problem, analysis, and advice, and submit it to the Department of Political Participation of their local party branch. Based on quality of the report, the reviewer decides whether refer it to higher authorities, namely the local committee of the CPPCC or the United Front Work Department, which manages relations with the non-communist parties. The local government will adopt good suggestions. For example, in 2008, the Beijing city government took the advice proposed by a member of Jiusan Society on removing the disorganized billboards near the Beijing international airport.
The policy survey and reporting systems are highly complementary. Not long ago, I had some suggestions on improving the regulation of cryptocurrency in China. The officials with the Department of Political Participation of Jiusan Society’s Beijing Bureau encouraged me to submit my advice via the special reporting system, so they could evaluate it quickly. If the report is thoughtful and feasible, it would be referred to United Front Work Department of Beijing city. Or I could apply for funding in March to conduct a thorough policy survey.
At the local level, most of the suggestions that are presented to upper level authorities could either be adopted or added to the party’s proposals to the CPPCC. Previous experiences indicate that addressing high-profile issues and loopholes in policy or law means a better chance to succeed in influencing policy. In the case that your suggestions are not accepted, though, you will receive proper explanation.
Beyond that, senior member of democratic parties, who are elected as CPPCC members, have the right to directly submit proposals to both the local and national committee. More than that, despite the democratic parties’ limited constitutional powers, the leaders of democratic parties at each level have substantial influence over policymaking. This is empowered by the Opinions on Strengthening the Work of the CPPCC, which holds that political consultation is an integral part of policy legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and state, so both CCP and state officials should consult the leaders of democratic parties as they make new policy. Indeed, a senior party member of the Jiusan Society told me that CCP and state officials actively seek policy suggestions from democratic parties on a variety of subjects, ranging from the government and party work reports, to socioeconomic development plans to important personnel appointments.
For instance, I attended a Jiusan Society internal meeting in 2015. At the end of the meeting, the then-vice chairman revealed that the government was about to abolish the one-child policy. Officials had asked democratic parties to provide suggestions on dealing with the associated problems caused by the repeal, such as the shortfall of education resources.
Both ordinary and senior members of democratic parties have various methods to substantially participate in politics, which helps ensure scientific and democratic policymaking at the local and state levels alike, as well as improving the ruling party’s governance capacity. Therefore, it’s necessary to both value and make use of the great potential of democratic parties.
To tap into this potential, one of the problems that needs to be addressed is the low profile of the non-communist parties. China’s democratic parties are criticized for being invisible to the general public for much of the year, even though they actively participate in politics as mentioned above. One of my friends complained that it’s hard to know who the members of democratic parties in his community are, let alone how to report problems to them. Since the budgets of democratic parties depend on fiscal revenue, they should ensure taxpayers know how much money they spend and how much they contribute to public affairs. Moreover, the democratic parties should harness convenient platforms like social media to facilitate communication and connection with the public, as well as improving transparency.
Xiaofeng Wang is the Fulbright Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University. Prior to that, Wang was a Beijing-based journalist.