Chinese President Xi Jinping looks on after dropping his ballot during a vote on a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits, at the third plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on March 11, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee
Chinese President Xi Jinping looks on after dropping his ballot during a vote on a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits, at the third plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on March 11, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee

Western pundits, particularly those in the US, have it all wrong when they assume that allowing China into the global economic or trading system would eventually lead the country to become “one of us.” The fact of the matter is that China has never wanted to  adopt Western democracy.

In view of more than 80% popular support according to US-based Pew and Gallup Polls and China’s ability to deliver on most of its promises (such as improving people’s livelihoods), the vast majority of the country’s population seem content with Beijing’s governance architecture, at least for now.

Neither is socialism in the European tradition been accepted as appropriate for China. In its search for an appropriate approach to economic development, it has adopted Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” which has been expanded to “Xi Jinping Thought: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” or what US political scientist Daniel A Bell has referred to as “democracy at bottom and meritocracy at top.”

Democracy and meritocracy

China’s “democracy at bottom and meritocracy at top” is not perfect, and it is undemocratic in the Western tradition – leaders are not directly elected by universal suffrage. But in light of the government’s achievements over the last 40 years, China’s political architecture is arguably more efficient and effective than those of most countries in the world, including the US.

Direct democracy at bottom

Direct democracy at the grassroots level was proposed in the 1990s and experimented with in China in the early 21st century. It was chaotic at first because no one really knew what was the best way to elect lawmakers. Secret balloting was considered prone to cheating, with some fearing that candidates could be “elected” many times. A show of hands was considered intimidating because rival camps might take revenge on those who did not vote for their man or woman.

County-level legislators elect provincial lawmakers who in turn elect deputies to the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature or parliament. The NPC meets once every five years to elect the nation’s top leaders and approve or disapprove policies.

Indirect election of leaders

In China, members of the Politburo and Standing Committee are “selected” by the Communist Party Central Committee, which is made up of senior leaders in government, state-owned enterprises and state banks. Former leaders also have a say in the selection process. The candidates are selected on the basis of proven competency and past accomplishments. The NPC “elects” who on the selected list will be the leaders for the next five years.

It could be argued that system by which Chinese leaders are indirectly elected is similarly to what is done in the US or Canada. In the US, the president is elected by the Electoral College and cabinet-level officers “elected” by members of Congress. In Canada, the leader of the party that garners the largest number of seats in Parliament forms the government and its leader automatically becomes the prime minister, who in turn appoints the cabinet.

Candidates to local, provincial and national legislatures need not be members of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The more than 2,500-member NPC, for example, represents a wide range of groups, from CPC members to ethnic minorities, the other eight political parties, and members of the armed forces.

The “selection and election” of county-level officials is not restricted to Communist Party members. In researching material for my first book, China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact, I discovered that the deputy mayor of a county in Guangdong province was a member of a non-communist political party. He was appointed because of proven competency and past accomplishments. Whether this is an isolated case or common across the country is unclear.

Modest political reforms

In Hu Jintao’s second term as president, he proposed wider Communist Party democracy, nominating more candidates than positions in the Politburo and Standing Committee. In this way, the “cronies” that were forced on to the selection list by former leaders might not get elected.

During Hu’s first term, his predecessor Jiang Zemin was able to install his supporters in pinnacles of power. For example, the two vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission were his men, denying Hu any real power over the military. Another Jiang crony, Zhou Yongkang, the internal-security czar, derailed Hu’s efforts to combat corruption.

What’s more, expanded intra-party democracy was deemed healthy,  improving the quality of debates and culminating in developing and implementing effective policies. In light of Xi’s first-term achievements – lifting more than 56 million out of poverty and improved relations with most countries in the developing world – China’s search for an appropriate governance architecture appears to be on the right track.

China is expected to deepen reforms, enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the constitution.

The Xi Jinping era

Only time will tell whether the removal of term limits for the president and vice-president is Xi Jinping’s ambition to be “emperor” or “president for life.” But he did urge cooperation between the Communist Party and the eight recognized non-communist parties in realizing the “Chinese Dream” at the Communist Party of China National Congress meeting last month. This would suggest Xi might be interested in expanding democracy rather than restricting it.

In February, the US-based Brookings Institution also reported that Xi had introduced “Open Party Regulations,” aimed at making the development of government policy more transparent.

However, Xi is also moving China more to the “left,” rejuvenating Mao-era slogans and policies. For example, he urges the People’s Liberation Army to obey the Communist Party and protect the “motherland” from external interference (read US).

So over the next five years or longer, the world can expect deepening economic and political reforms that would lead to a more prosperous and assertive China capable of pushing back threats from the US and its allies. For example, China has slapped tariffs of up to 25% on some US goods in retaliation against President Donald Trump’s import duties on Chinese steel and aluminum. The Chinese government has promised a “fight to the end” if Trump follows through on his threat to impose tariffs on US$60 billion worth of Chinese-made goods.

Xi’s ability and willingness to face difficult issues head-on might be the reason he proposed the removal of the term limits on the president and vice-president. That was approved by the National People’s Congress in March.

Xi might seek a third term, but speculation that he plans to become “president for life” could be just that. Xi’s background does not point to an ambitious leader craving for power. Indeed, during his years spent in an impoverished village during the Cultural Revolution, Xi was well liked and praised as a caring and responsible leader. Moreover, his anti-corruption campaign suggests that Xi is not amassing power and wealth for himself or his family. Finally, there is no reason for him risk his legacy by clinging on to power for life.

Rejection of US-style democracy

However, like his predecessors, Xi rejects US-style democracy as flawed. In a society in which there are conflicting interests, gaining a consensus on a policy is time-consuming and extremely difficult if not impossible. According to a March 19 report by the UK-based publication Verdict, 45 US industry groups (including the Chamber of Commerce and the Informational Technology Industry Council) opposed Trump’s tariff policy on China.

US states such as Ohio that have lost manufacturing and jobs because of globalization, on the other hand, welcome or even demand his getting tough on China. A March 2 CNBC report indicated that two of Ohio’s top Democrats, US Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Marcy Kaptur, support Trump’s policy.

Conflicting interest groups would likely relegate Trump’s policy into oblivion or ambiguity, a situation in which everyone loses. The steel and aluminum industries would be no better off because Trump has exempted major exporters of those commodities – Canada, Mexico, the European Union and Brazil. Consumers would be paying a higher price for products that use those metals.

Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have put forward another reason democracy is flawed. In a January Guardian article titled “This is how democracies die,” the authors argued that extreme partisan polarization on race and culture is responsible for America’s failed democracy. The election of Donald Trump has brought out the worst in America, with rising racist populism, protectionism and conservatism  threatening the country’s (and the world’s) economic, political and social stability.

But besides all these modern factors, China rejects liberal democracy primarily because it is inconsistent with its history and institutions. During its more than 5,000-year history, China has never experienced democracy, which means it would require time to make a smooth transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. With some 56 ethnic groups and numerous regions whose interests might be at odds with one another, Western-style democracy might not only be dysfunctional but might cause the nation to implode.

All the evidence demonstrates that China would not be what it is today had it adopted liberal democracy.

Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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