A villager harvests lotus flowers, a specialty product for tourists, from a pond in Donglin Town, Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province, on June 16 (XINHUA)
'Whole-process people's democracy" is a mysterious phrase to Westerners, who assume that China's political system, which has neither multiple competing parties nor Western-style general elections, can be in no way democratic.
Yet, when President Xi Jinping explains national rejuvenation—China's second centenary goal of becoming a fully modernized, socialist nation by the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic of China in 2049—he uses six aspirational adjectives, the third of which is "democratic." He calls democracy "a shared human value and an ideal that has always been cherished by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chinese people"—to be used, he says, to address the issues that concern the people.
The Party's call is to expand the people's orderly political participation, strengthen the protection of human rights and the rule of law, and ensure that the people enjoy extensive rights and freedoms per the law. Enhancing whole-process people's democracy enhances human rights.
Prosperity for all
Democracy in the Party-led system involves absorbing public opinion via feedback mechanisms, such as polling to discern what people think, for example, about proposed new policies—a process that the Party calls "pooling people's wisdom." Another example is when officials are nominated to new positions, there is a period for candid feedback from colleagues and subordinates as well as from superiors. So, even though there are no elections in the Western sense, there is a good deal of engagement with different constituencies.
In enhancing whole-process people's democracy, President Xi calls for upholding and improving the people's congress system, stressing properly and effectively exercising their power of oversight. [The people's congress system is the fundamental political system in China. The National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature, and the local people's congresses at all levels are the bodies through which the people exercise state power—Ed.]
Moreover, the work reports of Party leadership at Party congresses every five years, and of the Central Government at the NPC session every year, reflect a great deal of input and suggestions from all relevant officials, experts and constituencies. The documents circulate iteratively many times during the six to eight months or more of the drafting period.
I'd like to stress the increasing role of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in the development of deliberative and consultative democracy—because even though the CPPCC has no formal power, it has the growing social powers of expertise,
influence and public pressure. [The CPPCC is a political consultative institution that provides advice on state governance by pooling wisdom from a wide spectrum of Chinese society. The CPPCC National Committee, the country's top political advisory body, has over 2,000 members—Ed.]
I have been coming to China for more than 30 years. I have traveled across China, visiting over 100 cities, with my long-term partner, Adam Zhu, for research and interviews, books and essays, television and documentaries. Yet, as much as I thought I knew China, I did not appreciate all that is required for poverty alleviation until I visited extremely poor regions, especially remote mountain villages and spoke with locals there.
It was in 2013 that President Xi first proposed the concept of "targeted" or "precision" poverty alleviation. "Targeted" meant standardized
procedures and individualized programs to bring each poor family out of extreme poverty. Five levels of local Party secretaries coordinated their roles—provincial, municipal, county, township and village. Third-party evaluations were conducted regularly and randomly to ensure accuracy and honesty.
I was startled to discover that every poor family in China had its own file—that's millions of poor families, each with their own customized plan, each checked monthly, and digitized for central compilation and analysis. Equally startling, local officials were dispatched to impoverished villages to manage poverty alleviation, sometimes for as long as two years.
After China eliminated extreme poverty in late 2020, relative poverty was still extant, of course, and so President Xi sets a broader, longer-range, multi-decade goal: common prosperity.
Mission and challenge
My friends in China ask: Why does the world misunderstand the Party? The problem, I argue, is partly semantics—because the English word "party" connotes, in democratic political systems, a political party that competes in free and open multi-party elections, such that when a ruling party does not compete in free and open multi-party elections, that political system is deemed not democratic.
This portrait mispaints the Chinese system, which is founded on a different principle, where the Party is the ruling organization, not a competing political party—it is a dedicated elite from all sectors of society, consisting of less than 7 percent of the population but tasked to represent 100 percent of the population.
Thus, the Party, as the ruling organization, is not the equivalent of a ruling political party in Western systems, where political parties represent only a certain group of voters and are time-bound by election cycles.
For this reason, the CPC has a higher and broader obligation to enhance the living standards and personal wellbeing of all Chinese citizens. This includes reforms, the rule of law, transparency in government, public participation in governance, increasing democracy, various freedoms (including freedom of expression), and, of course, human rights. These are real challenges.
All political parties, and all political systems, have trade-offs, and while achieving national objectives is indeed an advantage of China's Party-led system, it is not the only criterion for evaluating systems. Therefore, continuing reform, opening up and system improvement are all necessary.
Looking ahead, given that both democracy and human rights are aspirational as part of China's mid-century goals, what kinds of system improvements need to be made? What are the boundaries for improvements? What is the optimal balance between development to achieve common prosperity and freedom of expression and how will that balance change over time?
One final point about President Xi. Foreigners may be surprised to learn that he considered poverty alleviation to be his most important task. He once made the remarkable statement: "I have spent more energy on poverty alleviation than on anything else." I know no other national leader who has made such an assertion.
For China, poverty alleviation exemplifies human rights. And for the Party, developing both human rights and democracy is both a mission and a challenge.
This is an edited excerpt from a speech by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, President of the Kuhn Foundation in the U.S., at the Forum on Global Human Rights Governance in Beijing on June 14
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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