Why China is not “the biggest and the most successful democracy”

By Yufei Zhang

China’s New Ambition

In November 2017, a major mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party published an op-ed, inciting fierce debate about the political system in China. “China is the biggest and the most successful democracy in the world,” Han Zhen, the head of a top-ranked university in China, stated in that article. “China’s achievements have already broken up the prerogative interpretation of democracy by the West.”

For many people in the West, facts speak for themselves – China has been an authoritarian country for decades, without a single interval. However, this fait accompli turns out to be not so true for those in China, who have received a set of systematic propagandas since childhood. Over decades, the spin doctors in China have led an effort to have ordinary Chinese believe that the political system in China, modified by various prefixes like socialism or people’s republic, has been a “truly democratic one” from the beginning.

Pillars of Democracy

It is necessary to return to the modern definition of democracy so that we can determine whether or not China’s political system fits into this category. In the 1970s, Robert Dahl, a political theorist at Yale University, put forth a series of characteristics essential in constituting a democracy. He remains widely cited by many other political scholars decades later.

According to Robert Dahl, there are two dimensions for examining the nature of a political system: contestation and participation. Furthermore, eight guarantees from the system’s national institutions necessarily formulate a responsive government and a democratic system: the freedom to form and join an organization, the freedom of expression, the right to vote, eligibility for public office, the right of political leaders to compete for votes, alternative sources of information, free and fair elections, and institutions for making government policies dependent on votes.[1]

China’s All-around Deficiency

How well does China fit Dahl’s definition? First and foremost, the Chinese Constitution excludes the possibility of political contestation and participation. The Communist Party of China (CPC) is enshrined as the liberator of the people and the natural leader of the nation in the preamble of the constitution. The first chapter of the constitution defines China as a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship. The term “democratic dictatorship” never implies “democratic” but always emphasizes “dictatorship” in reality.

There has never been a fair and free election for Chinese citizens to choose their representatives at all levels of assemblies. Nor are the principal officials of every level of government appointed by popular votes. Instead, both national congress and local legislative councils are full of people designated by the Communist Party. Through a nontransparent but nuanced system, the will of the Communist Party has been fully reflected in every aspect of officials’ career: nomination, appointment, supervision, promotion, and dismission. Direct election has only been allowed at the lowest level—village committee. However, massive irregularities and flaws of system design made this rural election a facade. Because of the unavailability of fair and free elections, other characteristics of democracy simply do not exist in China such as the right to vote, the eligibility for public office, the right of political leaders to compete for votes, and institutions for making government policies depending on votes.

Though the freedom to form and join organizations was written in the Constitution, it only looks good on paper. Without exception, any attempt to organize a political party or group has been strictly forbidden. Technically, however, the CPC is not the only party in this single-party nation. Eight united-front parties exist for nothing but to help the CPC hold power through perfunctory consultation. Since 1949, when the communists won the civil war, this party structure has roughly persisted with a short period of dissolving those united-front parties during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

The Constitution formally protects the freedom of speech. However, the violation of such a freedom has always been a severe issue, only with a short period of a less suppressed environment in the 1980s. Recently, it has been increasingly common for ordinary citizens to be arrested merely because they delivered criticism on or even mockery of local or national leaders via online blogs or virtual chat rooms. In addition, the government is inclined to sack or punish college teachers who express views about history or current affairs that are different from the authoritative version.

Regarding public information, there are limited channels for alternative sources of information. In the market of traditional media, all the newspapers and TV channels are under the control of the state. For decades, the independent press has been absent from this most populous country. China’s media policy degraded to its worst state in recent years; from being controlled by the state to being controlled by the Communist Party. Although new media has emerged from the background of internet and telecommunications technology, the authorities issued punctilious regulations to curb those new media and invested an astronomical amount of money in building and updating their net of surveillance and censorship, an example of which is the “Great Firewall”.

Beyond Robert Dahl’s definition, China faces another major hurdle to weave this democracy tale – the dependence of Chinese Army (PLA). According to the law, the PLA, the world’s largest military force, belongs to and is tightly under the control of the Communist Party. Any public voicing of the suggestion to nationalize the PLA remains the biggest taboo in China. Any such open dissent will be crushed. Without the nationalization of the army, it is impossible to persuade people outside China to believe that China is a democracy.

The claim to be the biggest democracy worldwide does not mean that Chinese leadership favors democracy or has any intent to pursue democratization. Instead of embracing democratic values, China only attempts to control the interpretation of democracy so that the government can camouflage its authoritarian rule merely in the name of democracy. Although, it may just be a case of the emperor’s new clothes.

Yufei Zhang is a 2017 graduate of the M.A. program in Democracy and Governance. Yufei earned his bachelor degree from Hainan University, China, and his first master degree in Media Studies from City University of Hong Kong.

[1] Robert Dahl, “Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition,” New Heaven: Yale University Press, 1971