It’s often the case that in one-party authoritarian states, notably in communist-run ones, the more leaders talk about their people, the less democratic those countries are. North Korea and China are cases in point. North Korea was given a score of 1.08 (out of 10) and ranked bottom, at 167th, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index. With a score of 3.32, China was placed at 130th. In its 2018 Freedom Index, Freedom House gave North Korea 3 points (out of 100) and China 14.
The UK-based EIU’s Democracy Index is based on five main categories: (1) electoral process and pluralism, (2) civil liberties, (3) the functioning of government, (4) political participation, and (5) political culture. Freedom House, a US-based nongovernmental group, uses 10 political rights indicators and 15 civil liberties indicators to assess countries/territories’ freedom, with political-rights indicators being grouped into three subcategories: (1) electoral process, (2) political pluralism and participation, and (3) functioning of government.
If these well-known scores and rankings are any indication, the two Asian countries, which are classified as “authoritarian” by the EIU and “not free” by Freedom House, are ranked very low in terms of democracy and political rights. Of the two, North Korea is evidently the worse.
Officially, North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and China the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These official names contain terms that sound very democratic, such as “democratic” itself, “people” and “republic.”
Their respective constitutions also clearly state that these countries are the people-centered republics.
The DPRK’s 1998-revised constitution decrees that the country “is guided in its activities by … a world outlook centered on people” and its “social system … is a people-centered system under which the working people are the masters of everything and everything in society serves the working people.” It also says the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) “is the highest organ of state power” in North Korea.
China’s constitution also contains similar clauses, such as “All power in the [PRC] belongs to the people,” and that the National People’s Congress (NPC) “is the highest organ of state power.”
If one looks purely at their official names and wording of their constitutions, these two neighboring states, which are among the few remaining communist nations, are without doubt very democratic – if not the most democratic – countries in the world. But in reality, they are not.
Though North Korea’s SPA and China’s NPC are theoretically the highest organs of state power, in practice, they are just rubber-stamp parliaments.
In North Korea, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), or more precisely the Kim family dynasty, reigns supreme over the country.
On Sunday, North Korean voters went to the polls to elect roughly 700 members to the SPA. Yet this quinquennial election was nothing more than a rubber stamp for the WPK, as there was only one approved name on each ballot paper
On Sunday, North Korean voters went to the polls to elect roughly 700 members to the SPA. Yet this quinquennial election was nothing more than a rubber stamp for the WPK, as there was only one approved name on each ballot paper. Theoretically, voters can cross it out before casting their ballot, but in practice, they don’t dare to do so because such a defiant act would invite suspicion and interrogation from the secret police.
The preamble of the DPRK’s constitution also says, “Regarding ‘The people are my God’ as his maxim, Comrade Kim Il Sung always mixed with the people, devoted his whole life for them and turned the whole of society into a large family which is united in one mind by taking care of the people and leading them through his noble benevolent politics.”
It is disputable that Kim Il Sung, officially an atheist, who founded the DPRK in 1948 and ruled it with absolute power until his death in 1994, believed and behaved in such a benevolent manner. What’s indisputable is that under the successive rules of his son, Kim Jong Il, and his grandson, Kim Jong Un, the opposite has been true. In many ways, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, and Kim Jong Un, who has ruled the DPRK since then, regard themselves – not the North Korea people – as gods. Under their regressive, repressive and ruthless regime, the North Koreans have suffered destitution, oppression and persecution.
In China, the word “People” is included not just in the official name of the country and its parliament but also in the official name of almost all other main state organs. These include the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, a political advisory legislative body), the Supreme People’s Court, the People’s Bank of China and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Yet all these so-called People’s bodies are subject to the Communist Party of China (CPC), which dominates all aspects of politics, economy and society of the 1.3-billion-people country. For instance, the NPC, which is currently holding its annual meeting, is widely seen as a rubber-stamp parliament as it rarely, if ever, objects to anything proposed by the CPC hierarchy.
Last year, the NPC passed an amendment to the constitution removing presidential term limits, allowing Xi Jinping to remain president indefinitely. Though such a radical change would have far-reaching impact on the world’s most populous country and second-biggest economy, 2,958 national legislators voted in favor, with only two against and three abstentions.
In fact, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the CPC has increasingly tightened party control in all aspects of life. Xi has repeatedly said, “Party, government, military, civilian and academic, east, west, south, north and center, the [CPC] leads everything.” He has also vehemently demanded “firm faith” and “absolute loyalty” to the party from virtually all of China’s institutions – ranging from the military and other national-security agencies to diplomats and media.
By demanding their “firm faith” and “absolute loyalty” to the party, Xi has, in a way, demanded it to himself, as he is also the CPC’s core and dubbed China’s Chairman of Everything, Everywhere and Everyone.”
A guideline released by the Central Military Commission (CMC), which oversees the PLA, in 2017 said “the army should be absolutely loyal, honest and reliable to Xi, who is also general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and chairman of the CMC,” Xinhua reported. “The army should follow Xi’s command, answer to his order, and never worry him.”
Of late, such an allegiance to Xi and his philosophy has been urgently insisted on.
Yet China’s main state media outlets have run several articles praising China’s democracy and, explicitly or implicitly, criticizing Western-style democracy. For instance, on March 7, Xinhua, the highly censored country’s official news agency, claimed that China’s “two sessions,” namely the annual meetings of the CPPCC and the NPC, “show quality of democracy in China.”
It claimed, “For China, a quality democracy … depends on people getting involved, making themselves heard and, more importantly, having their demands met.” It also contended, “While governments in a number of Western countries are facing social tensions and finding reforms difficult, China is, through its own democracy, seeking consensus and mobilizing the strength of the entire country toward the goal of national rejuvenation.”
A few days earlier, the People’s Daily, China’s main mouthpiece, published an op-ed titled “Chaos in the West shows that democracy comes in more than one flavor.” This piece claimed: “In China’s socialist democracy, there is a strong and stable political force that represents the interests of the great majority of the Chinese people. The Chinese government takes a people-centered approach to politics and good governance ensures that results can be delivered.” It then concluded: “It should be no wonder, then, that the Western model is barreling toward a cliff, while China is making great progress in various aspects, including the nation’s ambitious plan to eradicate poverty by 2020.”
Around that time, the Global Times, published by the People’s Daily, also ran an editorial with a similar view, maintaining that of Western-style democracy and Chinese democracy, “the latter is obviously much closer to ordinary people’s concerns.”
These claims by the Chinese state-run outlets are debatable and dubious. Certainly, as demonstrated by Brexit in the UK and other recent developments in the US and other Western countries, democracy is sometimes very messy. Yet the alternatives are probably worse. As Winston Churchill famously and rightly said, “Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”
Under Mao Zedong’s dictatorial 27-year tenure, China suffered many calamities, including the Great Leap Forward that led to the Great Famine and the disastrous Cultural Revolution. China achieved great economic success over the four past decades mainly because Deng Xiaoping initiated a liberal-minded policy of reform and openness, which was also pursued by his two immediate successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. But, as some have rightly observed, Xi has upended that “winning formula.” China’s economy is slowing down and the country is currently faced with many risks, and this is partly due to Xi’s oppressive and assertive policies.
What’s more obvious is that in single-party, authoritarian or dictatorial countries, such as North Korea and China, the people don’t have the right to choose their leaders directly. In those countries, it is not the people but the ruling regimes that decide everything and, when doing so, they often, if always, put their interests above the people’s interests.