A taste of China’s White Paper on Democracy

National Museum of China © derwiki/ Public domain/ Pixabay

From a Western point of view, it seems difficult to understand China. Especially for those who have not physically been in the country and obtain most of their news from Western media, grasping the true essence of the people and politics is inevitably hard. Not to worry, though, keeping an open mind and reading are easy remedies for anyone who truthfully aims at seeing through the fog. In the upcoming pages, some details from the white paper will be shown, with the aim of familiarising you with the structure and content. Nonetheless, I finish the introduction asking you to not only read me, but also to download the full 50 pages and give them a chance.

As the Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrates its hundredth anniversary in 2021, the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has published a white paper titled “China: Democracy That Works”. As these words might appear to many as a juxtaposition, the following article aims at presenting some of the details in the text with the aim of encouraging further reading and debate.

I remember in one of the classes on China-EU relations in Fudan’s master course on Chinese Politics and Diplomacy, our professor was explaining to us, international students, what Chinese democracy meant. He was not trying to convince us of anything. The professor even started the lesson expressing his worry about him not being able to help us understand the terms. Well, he could not have gone through much of the class when a French classmate angrily interrupted him: “Democracy can not be adapted as you wish! It should stem from the values of the French Revolution!”. I have to admit: at that moment I felt ashamed of being of European descent. Later, I reflected upon the shock my fellow European had gone through; how in Europe we are taught our system is the best, even “exportable”, but we never see how flexible the concept can be to other peoples. In my humble opinion, nothing should be fixed and unchangeable if we want to move forward and improve ourselves and our realities. It feels as though the Chinese have known that for a while, and this anecdote was somehow a small reenactment of what goes on in higher political levels.

Right before the start of the Beijing Winter Games 2022, the Republic’s Government published a 50-plus-page document on the historical and ideological development of what China calls its ‘whole process democracy’. Perhaps due to the current state of tension in US-China relations, the publication of the Chinese White Paper on Democracy has not been over-announced. It should be mentioned, though, that the day after the aforementioned publication, the Chinese Central Government also published a report listing several critiques on US democracy. Moreover, the main Chinese international state media, CGTN, started a series called “US Democracy: Reality Check”. Through contrasting facts, this initiative intends to illustrate the weaknesses of the North American order.

While it seems true that many of the readers will be surprised by the confirmation of the development of China’s own democratic system, the paper presents a series of key historical events that have led the country here. In this sense, the first chapter of this white paper is a great opportunity for all of us to understand the historical narrative and perspective used by the current Chinese leadership. Thus, after a preamble of conceptualising democracy, the text takes us on a journey back to the foundations of the PRC. According to the narrative, the period between 1919 and 1949 was the ‘New Democratic Revolution’. October 1st, 1949 then marked “the transformation of the country from the rule of feudal autocracy […] to a people’s democracy” with the official foundation of the PRC. The period from 1949 until 1978 was indeed a period of struggle for China internally and externally and is defined in the paper as the ‘socialist revolution and reconstruction’. Furthermore, the years of reform and opening up after 1978, “the Party led the people in advancing socialist democracy and the rule of law”. As the text follows, it explains how diverse structural systems were laid down and improved during the “socialist modernization” phase: that of people’s congresses, the CPC-led multi party cooperation and political consultation, the regional ethnic autonomy, and the community-level self-governance, among others. Then, the text jumps until 2012, the Party’s 18th National Congress, after which “socialism with Chinese characteristics entered a new era”. As explained by the paper, this event marks the start of the development of “whole-process people’s democracy”. At this point, it seems fitting to facilitate the whole original description of the above-mentioned system:

Whole-process people’s democracy is a creation of the CPC in leading the people to pursue, develop and realise democracy, embodying the Party’s innovation in advancing China’s democratic theories, systems and practises. The Party’s history of struggle is a course of rallying the people and leading them to explore, establish and develop whole-process people’s democracy. It is a logical outcome of history, theory and practice based on the strenuous efforts of the people under the leadership of the Party. It is a requisite for maintaining the very nature of the Party and fulfilling its fundamental purpose.

Whole-process people’s democracy, giving full expression to the socialist nature of the state and the people’s principal position, serves to better represent the people’s will, protect their rights and fully unleash their potential to create. Whole-process people’s democracy has formed and developed in a nationwide effort, led by the CPC, to strive for national independence, the country’s prosperity, and the people’s liberation and wellbeing. It is rooted in this vast land, nourished by the culture and traditions of the Chinese civilization, and draws on the achievements of human civilization. Suited to the conditions in China and embraced by the people, it has solid foundations and a bright future.

Whole-process people’s democracy is a complete system with supporting mechanisms and procedures, and has been fully tested through wide participation. It integrates two major democratic models – electoral democracy and consultative democracy. It operates a democratic system covering a population of more than 1.4 billion from 56 ethnic groups of a vast country, making possible the wide and sustained participation of all its people. Whole-process people’s democracy has distinctive Chinese characteristics; it also exemplifies common values and contributes China’s ideas and solutions to the political progress of humanity.

Following this statement of intentions to ensure the people are at the centre as “masters of the country”, the CPC’s role is portrayed as “fundamental”. It needs to have a “robust and centralised leadership” to fully “represent and address” the issues faced by the country and its large population. The CPC “upholds democracy within the party” as well as “law-based governance of the country.” In order to fulfil those tasks, the Party leads and coordinates in its commitment following the principle “from the people, to the people”, “doing everything for the people and relying on them.” Briefly, the second centre of this democratic system would be the CPC and its one-party rule. Here, it may be argued that the Party is trying to portray itself as far more democratic whilst also being sociocentric. In the wake of the controversial 'Democracy Summit' that America hosted with a number of selective invitees in December last year, China’s rhetoric may seek to further distance themselves from allegations of autocracy independent of a suspected contradicting reality.

Then, the second, third and fourth chapters are an in-depth journey to the administrative and ideological institutions on which the current Chinese system is based. Besides the concepts and their explanations, the text provides examples to help us picture the functioning of each area and process. For example, panel four in chapter 3 shows data from the “world’s largest community-level elections”, which China held in 2016 and 2017. As stated in the text, 900 million voters participated in the direct elections “to people’s congresses at the township and county levels.” Overall, the decision-making process becomes clear, and the consultation and supervision mechanisms and principles are highlighted.

“Democracy is a political form that has taken shape over the course of thousands of years. It has played a significant role in human development”. These phrases mark the start of the last chapter “New Model of Democracy”.

“[A sound and genuine democracy must allow the people […] the right to express their expectations and the right to have those expectations fulfilled […] It must allow them the right to contribute to national development and the right to share the fruits of development.” “The goal of ensuring the people’s status as masters of the country has grown richer in content, wider in channels, and greater in impact, driving democracy in China onward”.

Here, the Chinese Government is subtly comparing its new system with Western democracies. Later, in a definite critical note directed towards the US and the EU, the following lines of the paper act as a call to action to other countries in the world:

“China never seeks to export the Chinese model under any circumstances. It firmly supports the independent choice by every country of its own path to democracy, and opposes any interference in others’ internal affairs on the pretext of ‘bridging democracy’”.

Near the end, the white paper draws on the need for mutual respect and increased exchanges between countries. Chinese people are known widely for sending delegations. These return trips, however long, have mainly aimed at exploring and documenting. Contrarily to intercepting the daily lives in foreign land, Chinese people have been present analysing behaviours and customs to learn and enrich their culture. Thus, through careful studying, China has been, and still is, developing and making its stand in the world as an independent actor. In its current leading position in multiple aspects, China seems to feel confident to take a more active role in international relations, not by imposing its perception of the world, but instead by explaining itself by using concepts such as multilateralism, progress and equality.

As can be seen throughout the text, and as the first sentence of the conclusion states, “there is always scope for improving the system of democracy.” Keeping humble, China is showing the world how it wants to be seen and treated. Since the world needs China, maybe it is time to acknowledge it and become curious of its perspective.

Rita Giménez i Jiménez (Barcelona, 1992) lived in China from 2004 to 2011, conducting her secondary education studies between Dalian and Shanghai. She did her bachelors in Political Science and Public Management at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (2012-2016). In 2018, she returned to China to specialise in Chinese Politics and Diplomacy at the Fudan University in Shanghai, where she graduated with a thesis analysing the factors that influence the EU’s position toward the Catalan independence movement. Rita is a member of EG Barcelona and currently works as a Public Affairs Executive Associate at Kreab. You can find her on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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China: Democracy That Works, 2021. [Online]. The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China. Available from: http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/whitepaper/202112/04/content_WS61aae34fc6d0df57f98e6098.html [Accessed 8 December 2021].

The State of Democracy in the United States, Dec. 5, 2021. [Online]. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. Available from: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202112/t20211205_10462535.html [Accessed 8 December 2021].

What the U.S. should work on before defining how democracy works, December 11, 2021. [Online]. China Global Television Network (CGTN). Available from: https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-12-11/What-the-U-S-should-work-on-before-defining-how-democracy-works-15TUyobokGk/index.html [Accessed 12 December 2021].

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