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The Rise and Fall of Democracy With Chinese Characteristics

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The Rise and Fall of Democracy With Chinese Characteristics

Despite Beijing’s recent attempts to sell its own version of democracy, China’s “consultative democracy” has been on a downslide since Xi came to power.

The Rise and Fall of Democracy With Chinese Characteristics
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

When U.S. President Joe Biden invited leaders of the free world to the virtual Summit for Democracy in December 2021, China was not happy. In response, Beijing held its own “Advanced Democracy Summit” among Chinese and foreign scholars. The State Council also published the “Democracy in China” white paper, which argues that democracy is infused in all aspects of China’s political process – therefore, the paper argued, the political system under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is more democratic than the morally bankrupt Western democracy.

Many audiences might find the white paper laughable. Under Xi Jinping, the CCP intensified assaults on civil rights activists, religious believers, and ethnic minorities. However, the concept of China’s political reform toward “democracy with Chinese characteristics” is not new. The CCP explored political moves toward consultative democracy during the 2000s.

Consultative democracy has very different goals compared to representative democracy in Western countries. Representative democracy distributes political power to citizens through free and fair elections, legislative oversight, and protection against state coercion. The essence is power-sharing between the government and the citizens. Consultative democracy, on the other hand, is a communication channel in which the participants generate persuasive-based influence on the policymaking process through feedback and responses. Political power is not shared; it is still maintained in the hands of the CCP. It supplements the current authoritarian system by improving the government’s capability to satisfy citizens’ demands.

The CCP’s move toward consultative democracy peaked in the mid-2000s with several structural and institutional developments. The “Mayor’s Mailbox” is one innovative method of China’s consultative politics. It is an online platform that allows citizens to submit their complaints to local governments. Then, a general-purpose office directs these complaints to different agencies, where these agencies are responsible for providing feedback. The “Mayor’s Mailbox” appeared in the early 2000s due to a nationwide “government online” campaign. By 2014, 98 percent of China’s 336 prefectural level governments provided this service. Research shows that the Mayor’s Mailbox delivers helpful information in response to 43 percent of the requests; it is comparable to the responsiveness of politicians in established democracies.

Public deliberation meetings are another vital component of consultative democracy; it aims to bring a broader audience to the policymaking process and facilitate greater government-citizen information exchange. The government publishes the draft of a new regulation for a period of public commenting. Local governments hold public hearings that focus on livelihood issues, such as changing prices for public services. For example, cities such as Qingdao have held hearings regarding proposed increases in taxi fares. A public hearing effectively encourages citizens’ participation because it establishes a face-to-face information exchange channel that government officials cannot ignore. It forces officials to take comments seriously and provide satisfactory responses.

Civil society played a crucial role in consultative democracy. During the totalitarian Maoist era, the CCP and the state asserted total control over all aspects of life. As reform initiated in the 1980s, civil society became an instrumental tool to remedy the defects of statism. Economic development expanded the scope of civil society to all aspects of life, such as charity funds, market-based organizations, and business associations. Thus, the number of NGOs multiplied and reached 816,000 by 2018. More importantly, NGOs found themselves involved in the policymaking process, and the local governments relied on NGOs for policymaking and delivering services. The Wenzhou Shoe Association, for example, was vital for developing and implementing industrial quality guidance. Efforts from more than 30 environmental groups halted the controversial dam-building project on the Nu River. In Beijing, the government privatized more than 300 public service projects to NGOs and awarded more than 100 million RMB worth of contracts.

The most significant value of these institutions is to ensure a steady flow of information about public preference and policy outcomes to the government. In the absence of political freedom, lower-level officials have little incentive to reveal poor performance and policy failure to superiors. These institutions establish a direct connection between citizens and the higher officials, allowing the public to transmit information to the political elites, from opinions on public policies to dissatisfaction with government officials and conflicts among social actors. The government can improve governance by identifying policy failures, resolving social conflicts, and making lower level officials more accountable.

However, consultative democracy has its natural weakness; it relies on the goodwill of the CCP because of the party’s absolute power at every level. It depends exclusively on state-controlled platforms such as media, the internet, and official hearings. Thus, when officials perceive this system to be threatening their career and constraining their power, they can use the state control over these platforms to obstruct the consultative process. There is a saying in China: If you cannot solve the problem, you can solve the people with the problem.

Officials control not only the domain and scope of the consultation but also the forums, level of organization, timing, and agenda. Thus, they can limit citizens’ capacities to put issues onto political agendas when they find them too threatening. Officials have the power to decide what can or cannot be discussed. Politically sensitive issues are certainly off limits, and the government actively hunts down civil rights fighters and NGOs who participate in advocacy over these issues. In addition, when a career-threatening scandal breaks out, such as the initial COVID-19 breakout in Wuhan, officials naturally cover up the bad news in the name of “social stability.”

When the CCP’s goodwill disappeared, China’s consultative democracy inevitably retreated out of the political picture. During Hu Jintao’s second term, the progress toward consultative democracy ceded ground to increasing social crackdowns in the name of “stability maintenance.” Part of the reason was the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as the government did not want to show any sign of instability under the international spotlight. Another reason, according to David Shambaugh, was the retirement of Zeng Qinghong, who was the political sponsor of consultative democracy. Zeng had concluded that such reform was necessary for the CCP to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union; his retirement removed from the field a high-profile advocate for these policies.

After Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the CCP has been increasingly obstructing the infrastructure of consultative democracy. The party now views these institutions not as strengths or sources of resiliency but as weaknesses in policy implementation and threats to regime stability. Mass arrests, such as the 2015 arrests of lawyers, aimed to eliminate or intimidate all human rights activists and their families. Crackdowns suffocated the operations of NGOs in China and their ability to cooperate with foreign counterparts. Online whistleblowing met with charges of “spreading rumors.”

Only the “Mayor’s Mailbox” remains responsible for citizens’ complaints. However, the scope of the Mayor’s Mailbox remains limited due to local cadres’ lack of power. According to one local cadre, they only have the power to solve mundane issues such as settling disputes among neighbors.

The increasing crackdown on citizen activism has slowly radicalized the participants. Leaders reorganized activists from loose connections of disgruntled citizens to groups with clear political goals, mobilized strategies, and underground communication networks. The Chinese government already faced this trend during Hu’s second term.

Repeated suppression efforts taught these groups that participation through legal channels did not work. Thus, they have no alternative option besides organizing protests, the only way to hold local officials accountable. The number of protests jumped from 87,000 in 2005 to over 180,000 in 2010. Protests have a special veto power in the cadre evaluation system, as local officials who face protests will not be promoted. Thus, citizens gradually developed a “mutually assured destruction” relationship with local cadres, in which people threatened to protest if local governments did not address their demands. Through a popular protest, people can draw attention and intervention from higher-ranking officials, thereby ruining local cadres’ career prospects. Therefore, this “mutually assured destruction” relationship evolved into the golden law of Chinese local politics: “smaller chaos, smaller solution; bigger chaos, bigger solution; no chaos, no solution” (小闹小解决,大闹大解决,不闹不解决).

How the CCP views democracy reflects how the party views itself. Does the party believe it enjoys overwhelming support from the Chinese people, as it claims? Or does the CCP understand that its legitimacy is walking on the thin ice? The Democracy Wall movement in the late 1970s might provide a useful anecdote. Deng Xiaoping said that “People should express their discontent. […] This is not scary.” However, months later, Deng ordered the suppression of the movement and the arrest of key figures because he found the movement threatening CCP rule.

The rise and fall of consultative democracy in China demonstrate that the CCP has a hard time balancing between political unipolarity and a diversifying society. The question of domestic legitimacy will certainly keep Chinese leaders awake at night.