Sam Noumoff


China is at a critical stage with respect to democracy and human rights. We are producing this article by a well-known China observer because of the importance of this question, the outcome of which is bound to have significant effect not only in China but in the entire Asia and the world.



In recent months discussion over the nature of democracy has been raging both in China and abroad. This discussion was precipitated, in the main, by the speech of Premier Wen Jinbao during the 30th Anniversary proceedings for Shenzhen, followed in the same month of August and interview with Lt. General Liu Yazhou in Hong Kong’s Phoenix Weekly. Premier Wen was reported to have said “Without political reform China may loose what it has actually achieved through economic restructuring, and the targets of its modernization drive might not be realised”. This was a continuation of an analysis initially argued by President Hu Jintao two years earlier in 2008 at the 30th Anniversary of the 3rd Plenum of the 11th Party Central Committee when he argued for equal emphasis on political reform and economic restructuring. He also recognized the danger of excessive concentration of power unrestrained by supervision by the people which followed the speech by Deng Xiaoping in August of 1980 at the extended Politburo meeting titled The Reform of the Leadership System of the Party and the State. Two months before te Shenzhen speech, in June, Premier Wen expanded on his understanding of political restructuring during an interview with Japan’s NHK Television when he put forward four points: (1) socialist democracy which to be meaningful includes the right to vote, be informed about and participate in and oversee government, (2) improve socialist legality, (3) realize social justice and equality. (4) achieve all -round development in a free environment.


General Lu, in his published interview, argued that a system that fails to permit its citizens to breath freely and fails to unleash their creativity is doomed. Is this a disguised plea for westernization of China’s political system? Clearly not. Writers on Taiwan (Epoch Times)have commented that what Liu is advocating is a broader dialogue on how the system can adapt to a changing reality rather than proposing any fundamental break with the system. This is largely validated by the fact that it was just a year ago, in December 2009, that President Hu promoted General Liu to the position of Political Commissar of the People’s Liberation Army’s National Defence University. Lu further argued that an overemphasis on stability and moneymaking would be counterproductive generating their own contradictions.


The obvious question is what is the meaning of democracy? On October 29th, People’s Daily defined what it is not; it is not the reproduction of western liberal democracy with its competitive party system and separation of powers into executive-legislative and judicial branches. The reason given is clear. Western powers developed its political system as it acquired its wealth during the imperialist period by exploitation of the rest of the world, thereby affording a state welfare system based upon that exploitation. Fragmented power also makes it impossible to confront serious problems when they emerge. To this one might add that the competition between political parties in the West, while recognizing differences, establishes boundaries out of which none dare move. Differences are tactical, defined as which approach will best preserve and expand the existing system. Advocates of system change are quickly marginalized owing to overwhelming financial resources in the hands of system defenders. The separation of powers practice reveals the same flaw with the overwhelming preponderance of judicial decisions made through the prism of a judge determining the best means of preserving the system.


In my judgement the most useful way of examining the direction of China’s political reforms is to recall a concept used half a century ago in political anthropology, know as structural functionalism. In examining societies of different historical cultures and levels of development this approach argued that formal institutional differences notwithstanding, all societies could be compared by examining the structures in society which are established to perform various social functions which assure social stability. In other words, all societies establish structures in order to deal with functions which are required by that society and that those structures can and do vary significantly, however, the functions are performed. What are the required functions when examining political reform; participation, transparency of decision making, accountability, a well informed population, voting accepted norms or rules expressed in law. Has China to date significantly realized these objectives, no. Has China begun the transition, absolutely yes. When Premier Wen referred to the imperative of political reform as an essential ingredient safeguarding economic reform he was referring to the need to decrease the growing income gap both individually and regionally, corruption, environmental degradation, meeting rising demands for social goods, and unrest, all of which have been unleashed by economic reforms of recent decades.


Clearly the democratic impulse for political reform, or what some in China have called xieshang minzhu (deliberative democracy), is slowly gaining traction. It is important to note a number of examples; (1) in 2003, 10% of the National People’s Congress voted against President Jiang Zemin remaining Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission; (2) Term limits for senior official was instituted; (3) in 2007, President Hu Jintao was unable to designate his successor to the Presidency at the expiration of his term. (4) Direct elections have been instituted in villages since the Organic Law of Village Elections in 1987, with 300 million voters electing self-governing committees by 2007, more recently extended to townships and selected urban areas, with open nominations encouraged since 1998; (5) a slow but steady increase in awareness by the population of their rights and mechanisms of redress; (6) greater access to information when compared to the past. These initiatives are in the early stages of development and may appear isolated, that is yet to have achieved critical mass of becoming an organic part of routine political practice. Majority rules and elections are part of but not equivalent to democracy. Minority interests must be protected, as pointed out in the Global Times in July of 2010. Meaningful democracy must combine a sense of the public good combined with high moral standards of leaders. Elections can also reveal certain inadequacies of an immature democratic ethos. Investigation of Hainan in the summer of 2010, resulted in a massive bribe scheme with votes being purchased for up to $177 (1,200 yuan rmb) per head, with fortune tellers and “witches” becoming involved as partisans of particular candidates combined with clan blood loyalties called upon for support. The power of elected officials to direct public investment merely encouraged the bribery phenomenon. Democracy in form is no assurance for democracy in its essence. As commented by Li Junru, former Vice-President of the Central Patty School “Democracy is our goal and our pursuit, but it needs to be carried out in accordance with reality and pushed forward step-by-step.” What are the features of contemporary Chinese society which this pushing ahead and what areas require an accelerated push? In addition to the embedding of a democratic tradition as seen by local elections, a mechanism for direct supervision by the people has grown up as a result of the fact that over 30% of the population, or 420 million citizens are registered internet users. Increasingly local governments are using the internet as discussion n forums prior to the release of policy, a form of e-government initiative. There have, however, been recent complaints that these local government web sites are more for show than substance. A study released by Shanghai Jiao Tung University in November of 2010 reported that the internet was increasingly making governments more democratic and objective. Instant communication provides people with n effective means of communication, exposure of corrupt and illegal activities and therefore improves the supervisory role. In the past five years seventy-five officials in Hangxhou have been found guilty of corruption and embezzlement.


The use of law suit related petitions has increased significantly. Between March and December of 2010, 6,501 of these were dealt with. While the preponderant number seem to be related to the treatment of prisoners in detention and their alleged torture, others have addressed, others have dealt with charges of corruption. The Ministry of Justice has responded by a revised police training program requiring police to properly abide by the law.


The Ministry is also organizing a legal office to assist citizens in filing complaints before a mediation office designed to assist in addressing their grievances. Another recently relative initiative is promising with the introduction of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs) and Non-Profit Incubators (NPIs). Initially NGOs required an institutional sponsor, and supervised by the local government affairs office, however, more recently Shenzhen in 2008 introduced a procedure permitting NGOs to register without a sponsor followed by Beijing in 2010. As of 2008 there were three million unregistered NGOs (some registered as companies) and four hundred thousand which were registered. The sole beneficiaries of government subsidies are those which are registered.


This process goes to the heart of a new formulation of the relationship between government authority and civil society and separating one from the other. The lightening rod for this is Wang Yang, Politburo  member and Secretary of the Guangdong Party Committee.


According to Shanghai ribao Wang has for some time urged government organs to shed their unnecessary rights and “to have social organizations do what they are supposed to do in a citizen society”. In the early stage they should be charged with focusing on personalized rather than bureaucratic service to the disabled, senior citizens, mentally challenged children, the environment and health care. Governments should then consider purchasing the services of the NGOs to permit the services to be delivered. Periodic reviews have been put in place to permit third party evaluation of these NGOs designed to weed out the non-performing ones.


This would accelerate the power shift from government to the public, according to Ma Hong. Director of Shenzhen’s Department of Civil Society Management. NPOs, or philanthropic organizations are at the very early stages of development, most commonly employed during periods of national catastrophe such as the Sichuan earthquake relief fund. Some resentment has built up owing to “mandatory” contributions in local state owned enterprise being automatically docked from pay checks in response to a catastrophic events. A Tsinghua University survey revealed a scepticism about contributing to a private foundation with 61% of those surveyed preferring a government collection of funds to be dispatched to critical areas. Some of the scepticism is based on the utter lack of administrative experience 80% of the Foundation officers, many of whom are retired local civil servants with neither experience of ability to perform this work. This may change with the NPO program of incubator professional training and NPO building programs recently granted substantial support from the Lenovo computer chip company.


In summary, we can see that some very significant processes have been initiated which will benefit from experience as they develop and deepen their practice and move into advanced stages of growth.


What are the next steps in this monumental process of political reform?


(1) Expanding direct election to the county level combined with encouraging an increase in the number of candidates running for office considerably beyond the number of posts available. This will clearly insure a higher level of competence of officials as well as induce a greater sense of responsiveness.


(2) Summing up the experience of selective urban direct elections and expanding the experiment to a wider arena.


(3) Examine with great care the bureaucratic blockages which have been established by vested interests and move to remove them by redistributing power. These vested interests have been centred on regional (East Coast), Provincial (East/West unequal development), sectoral (privileged industries) or individual (employment for retired government employees). While macro balance must continue to reside in the Centre with greater authority devolved down to the Provincial and sub-Provincial levels.


(4) Re-emphasize cooperative property at the grass roots level which expands democratic decision making.


(5) Alter the role of government from one of overemphasis on per capita growth to a more balanced blending of growth and per capita benefit which has already taken route in three counties in Shaanxi. Accompanying this must be an alternation of how officials are evaluated and promoted to reflect this new direction.


(6) Adopt a system of regularized annual open party meetings with an assurance given that each item raised will be addressed at the next regular meeting outlining any action taken.


As stated above, democracy is not merely election, majoritarianism or the protection of private property. It entails an ethos which is committed to the public good and based on knowledge, information, participation, transparency of decision making and the exercise of popular supervision. This is not an easy or instant process but one that must and has taken on greater importance. All of this must occur in a legal regime which defines the behaviour of both citizens and state authority. While economics remains the key factor, there are times when other factors in society such as political reform must be addressed in order to ensure that society adapts as it grows in meeting the aspirations of the people to be empowered.


(Sam Noumoff was a Professor of Political Science at McGill University, Montreal, Canada and has been a long-time friend  and observer of China.) 

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