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China Tiptoes Toward Democracy

Mar 23, 2011

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was quoted in 1987 as saying that China would hold national elections in 50 years, by 2037. Democracy in China doesn't generate as much attention as human rights– President Barack Obama didn't even mention it to President Hu Jintao during Hu’s recent state visit, though he did mention human rights — but China may actually deliver on Deng's promise ahead of schedule.

In September 2010, President Hu gave a speech in Hong Kong in which he called for new thinking about Chinese democracy. Said Hu, "There is a need to…hold democratic elections according to the law; have democratic decision-making, democratic management as well as democratic supervision; safeguard people's right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise."

His remarks elaborated on comments from Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, delivered the previous month in Shenzhen, the coastal free enterprise zone at the forefront of China's economic revolution. Wen said that without reforms of the political system, gains from reforms of the economic system would go down the drain. Political reform is necessary, said Wen, to sustain the nation's breakneck economic growth, including opportunities for citizens to criticize and monitor the government.

 Wen's remarks led to speculation that Shenzhen, which set the pace for China's economic development, could soon become a "special political zone." Sino experts noted that Shenzhen has long set the pace in economic reform so a next step could be direct elections for the chiefs of the Special Economic Zone's six districts, or for the mayor of Shenzhen.

 Despite these pro-democracy words from China's top leaders, when it comes to the subject of representative democracy in China numerous sinologists continue to say, "Don't hold your breath." But the notion may not be as far-fetched – or as far off – as the cynics believe. 

 For example, most people are surprised when they learn that China already holds more elections than any other nation in the world. Under the Organic Law of the Village Committees, all of China's approximately one million villages — home to some 600 million voters — hold elections every three years for local village committees. The village councils have powers to decide on such vital issues as land and property rights, which are central to local development and the source of increasing tensions (as people are moved off their land, often involuntarily, for the alleged good of China — and all too often to line local officials' pockets). 

 Critics scoff at these local elections and question whether they are genuinely democratic. Election committees controlled by the Chinese Communist Party often play a significant role as gatekeepers, in many villages deciding most of the candidate nominations. Many of the local elections are rigged, they say, lacking a secret ballot, meaningful oversight or independent review.

 But Robert Benewick, a research professor at the University of Sussex who has studied local elections closely, says that village elections have been growing more competitive, with the use of the secret ballot becoming more common. For those elections where there has been real competition, with bona fide independent candidates running, researchers claim to have evidence of positive impacts.

 Yao Yang is a soft-spoken economist who met with me over lunch one day in Shanghai to discuss his research about the impact of local elections. In a study that looked at 40 villages over 16 years, his research found that the introduction of elections had increased spending on public services by 20 percent, while reducing by 18 percent the spending for "administrative costs," which is bureaucratic-speak for corruption. I asked Yao about the critics’ skepticism, but he only smiled shyly and said, "People can say whatever they want. But I have the data to prove it.”

 Despite the critics, the Chinese leadership seems impressed with the potential of electoral democracy. Premier Wen has suggested that the village elections might be extended to the next level of government — township administrations — sometime over the next few years.

 China's modest experiments with local elections have been supplemented with exercises in what is known as "deliberative democracy." These take the shape of New England-style town hall meetings, review hearings and public consultation exercises. China hired Stanford University professor James Fishkin to draft a representative sample of citizens from the city of Zeguo to participate in a process so they could decide how their city should spend a $6 million public works budget. Fishkin's "deliberative polling" method employs technologies such as the Internet, keypad polling devices, handheld computers and more to convene representative assemblies of average citizens for several days of face-to-face deliberation.

 The Zeguo exercise was considered hugely successful and has been replicated in other places. Interestingly, it jibes well with the governance vision of some Chinese leaders who want to see China develop into a sort of high-tech "consultative dictatorship" in which the leaders use various technological means to keep their fingers on the pulse of the people, a kind of 21st century version of Plato's philosopher-kings ruling for the good of society.

 Professor Yu Keping, who is deputy director of a Communist Party institute and author of a prominent book called "Democracy Is a Good Thing," is said to have the ear of President Hu. He and others have been nudging democracy forward in another direction that shows great promise — internal democracy within the ruling Communist Party. The idea would be to rejuvenate the party from the bottom up by holding competitive elections for all party posts. This already has begun at lower levels, with votes for provincial and national party congresses showing electoral slates with 15 to 30 percent more candidates than positions.

 Given that the Communist Party has a membership of 73 million people — larger than most nations — such a "democratic vanguard" holds potential. If internal elections become more widespread, then the lines of ideological difference within political elite circles might become more clearly drawn, which could further spur calls for some kind of representational structure. Rapid change in China already has resulted in a battle of ideas pitting the coasts and cities against the countryside and inland provinces, and the rich against poor. Internal elections are increasingly seen by some as a healthy vehicle for airing these differences.

 Most sinologists believe that if Chinese democracy continues to develop it is unlikely to be an exact copy of the Western model.  It will probably have its own unique characteristics. Many are intrigued by the vision promoted by Confucian-inspired intellectuals like Jiang Qing, who have put forward an innovative proposal for a tricameral legislature. Legislators in one chamber would be selected based on merit and competency, and in the others based on elections of some kind. One elected chamber may be reserved only for Communist Party members, the other for representatives elected by everyday Chinese.

 Such a tricameral legislature, its proponents believe, would better ensure that political decisions are made by more educated and enlightened representatives, instead of the rank populism of Western-style elected factions.

It's intriguing to contemplate China evolving into some sort of innovative democratic experiment, combining tricameralism with all the high-tech features of deliberative democracy methods to mold a new type of political accountability as well as separation of powers. Daniel Bell, a Canadian-born professor of political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says China may be groping toward "a political model that works better than western-style democracy."

President Obama should be bold in engaging President Hu and other Chinese leaders on this most important subject, but he should be prepared for some surprising responses. Who knows, Hu might have some suggestions about how to improve American democracy.

China is both a modern state and an ancient civilization, and both a world power and a developing country that, after all, has shown an almost pathological degree of patience and forbearance. This is the nation where Zhou Enlai, the legendary prime minister under Mao, was asked what he thought of the French Revolution and is said to have replied: "It's too early to tell."

The same could be said for the prospects of representative democracy in China. 

 Steven Hill ( is a political writer whose latest book is "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" ( He also is the author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" (]

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