THE PAPER | The Notion of Democracy in China's Context
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THE PAPER | The Notion of Democracy in China's Context

By Peter Emerson
The de Borda Institute, Belfast, UK

THE PAPER | The Notion of Democracy in China's Context

The story of how rulers in China have related to the ruled, and whether or not any voting was used, covers many centuries. Initially, majority voting was used in “… the Court Conference of the Former Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 23 CE), and decisions were based on the opinion of the majority regardless of the position or rank of the individuals on either side. As a rule, [these decisions] were accepted by the Emperor” (Wang, 1968: 176). (At the same time, of course, the city states of Greece were devising a “demos”, a more inclusive though still all-male and non-slave democracy, and here too majority voting was used, but in a democratic structure where there was “nothing resembling a ‘party system’” (Ste. Croix, 2005: 198).

The rule in those “times”, it was explained by one of the dynasty’s most successful generals, Mǎ Yuán, was as follows: “it is not only the sovereign who selects his subjects. The subjects also select their sovereign” (Keay, 2009: 169). Indeed, the “mandate of heaven”, which underpinned every dynasty, “in recognising the right of the people to rebel if the emperor failed them, was certainly a more democratic idea than its European counterpart, the divine right of kings” (Jacques, 2012: 275). Maybe too Confucianism was more democratic than pre-reformation and even some post-reformation denominations of Christianity.

Nevertheless, imperial rule was dictatorial, so inevitably, over the years, changes were mooted. Unfortunately, however, attempts such as the Minor Reforms of the 11th century were regarded as criticisms of the Emperor and did not get very far; instead, the emperor’s grip on power became tighter and tighter. Even when outside influences might have helped to create a less autocratic system of governance, as when the Jin dynasty came to power in 1122, the opportunity was not taken and instead, “Consensual institutions like the Jurchen chiefs’ periodic councils [wereabolished” (Keay, 2009: 335).

The situation became critical, however, in the 19th century, when the more powerful Western imperial powers fought the Opium Wars and then imposed the unequal treaties. In 1868, in an indirect response to yet another act of western gunboat diplomacy, this time by the US, Japan underwent a period of modernization and westernisation, the Meiji Restoration. The consequence for China was yet another humiliation―defeat in 1894 by Japan in a war over Korea―whereupon many Chinese people realised that they too should modernise. First came the Hundred Days Reform, which the Dowager Empress Cí Xǐ squashed. Next was the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, with which she emphasised. And finally, albeit after her death, there came the revolution of 1911 and the end of the Qīng dynasty altogether.

That which might have been the advent of a democratic China, the first election, was held in 1913. It was a contest in which “over three hundred… small political groups or parties” participated (Spence, 1999: 275), and the Guómíndǎng (Kuomintang) of Sūn Zhōngshān (Sun Yat-sen) came out on top: 269 of the 596 seats in the upper house, and 123 of 274 in the lower (Brown, 2011: 8). Alas, the President, Yuán Shìkǎi, who wanted to make himself yet another emperor, then banned this party altogether. The resulting chaos soon led to the terrible period of warlordism. By the mid-1920s, there were two parties―both of which believed in the notion of the one-party state, the Kuomintang and now the Communists―and both were competing against each other, often violently, to unite the country under one central rule. Then the Japanese returned: first in Manchuria in 1933 and, four years later, in China proper, occupying very quickly almost the entire Eastern sector.

1945, the end of WWII, brought no respite to China; that only came in 1949, with the Communists winning the civil war and forcing Jiǎng Jièshí (Chiang Kai-shek) to flee to Taiwan. Shortly afterwards came a tragedy: ignoring any lessons that there might have been from the Soviet experience, Máo Zédōng forced through his own experiment in collectivisation, and the resulting death toll was measured in millions. Rules were made in Beijing, on the basis of which policies were enacted in collective meetings in the villages, with decisions of life and death sometimes subject to the local village vote.
Political Reform
On the death of Máo, reform, both economic and political, was essential. The former was necessary, if only to ensure that starvation came to an end. The latter, too, was important, for if the peasantry were to continue under the centralised rule from Beijing, there would always be the possibility of a peasants’ rebellion. Indeed, it was the “combination of lawlessness and economic mismanagement from 1949 onwards [which] were the driving factors behind the introduction of [village] elections after 1978. This at least gave governance in villages some semblance of legitimacy and popular support” (Brown, 2011: 18-19).

“The term ‘political reform’ was formally introduced into the modern lexicon of the Peoples’ Republic of China, PRC, in a speech given by Dèng Xiǎopíng in 1980” (Joseph, 2010: 108). It was a combination of rural democracy―for nothing yet was in the towns and cities―along with some more inclusive structures within the ruling CPC. Thus the June 1979 “new election law… sought to demonstrate a new spirit of democracy by insisting that contests for local People’s Congresses should not be unopposed, and providing that any member of the electorate could stand [for office]” (Gittings, 2005: 160). That said, Dèng certainly had his reservations: “we should neither copy western democracy”, he said in 1987, “nor introduce the system of a balance of three powers” (Gittings, 2005: 179). The PRC, of course, was still a one-party state but, as noted above, such was the scenario when political reform was initiated in the USSR.

The Kuomintang, now in Taiwan, adopted a multi-party democracy in the 1980s. When Britain left Hong Kong in 1997, the latter also adopted a plural polity. China itself, despite such events as the democracy wall of 1978 and the 1989 protests in Tiān’ānmén Square, remains a one-party state, a “consultative democracy”, to use their current term.
Today’s Elections
For the moment, then, elections are confined to the villages. Now anecdotal evidence suggests village democracy in China is not without its blemishes; but similar instances of fraud and cronyism can be found in many other parts of the world as well, not least in the author’s own of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, “The village election process has in effect been a massive act of education that has taught over 800 million people… the principles of Party and non-Party members running for power, of secret ballots, and of one person, one vote. It has also taught the principles of universal suffrage and of a choice of candidates. Village elections were not meant to be the seeds of anything else. But perhaps one day their introduction may be seen as a hugely significant moment when ideas of government being accountable to people who had the power to vote them in or out of power started to take root” (Brown, 2011: 69).

This village democracy is, of course, within the parameters of the one-party state―so it could be termed nonpartisan. In like fashion, local democracy in the US often tries to operate on a non-partisan basis; indeed, some smaller jurisdictions try to promote such a policy at both local and regional levels: the Canadian Inuit’s region of Nunavut, for example, and the British island of Guernsey, both have no-party structures.
The One-Party State
A second aspect of the current scenario relates to whether or not single-party rule can be democratic. In many jurisdictions, especially in post-conflict zones, governance has been and sometimes still is effected via one form or another of power-sharing: the list includes Belgium, Bosnia, Kenya, Lebanon, Northern Ireland and South Africa. (For reasons unclear, the West usually advises newly-emerging democracies to adopt a majoritarian polity, initially; then, if and when it all goes horribly wrong, it suggests the very opposite, all-party power-sharing. The latest example is Ukraine.) Other, so-called stable democracies have also resorted to governments of national unity, GNU, in times of emergency: the UK, for example, had a coalition government during WWII. And one country, Switzerland, adopted a form of all-party rule without a crisis; in 1959, a “magic formula” of 2:2:2:1 was devised, such that the four largest parties formed a collective presidency. The formula is now 2:2:1:1:1 and five parties are involved, but “the magic” remains.

If, then, all-party governance is still democratic, might a one-party state also aspire to such an ideal? The example of Tanzania comes to mind, (see above), as does the theoretical possibility of a parliament in which every MP is an independent member. In fact, many an idealist has aspired to a non-party democracy: George Washington, for example, in his farewell address to the American people, first published on 17.9.1796, said, “the alternate domination of one faction over another… has perpetrated the most horrid enormities [and] is itself a frightful despotism”.

So maybe it is possible to have a one-party democracy. Every party has its wings, of course, and with its rightists and deviationists, the CPC has been no exception. But every country has its wings too. In a majoritarian polity, parliaments tend to split into government versus opposition. In a more inclusive milieu, such as a GNU, everyone is expected to cooperate. So might it be possible to create a (no-party), one-party (or all-party) democratic structure such that no one faction has the sole right to rule, and no one leader the possibility of becoming “the elected dictator”―to use Lord Hailsham’s description of Margaret Thatcher (Hailsham, 1978).
A Western Democracy?
The first question, however, is this: what would happen if elections were to be held in China under an open, multi-party, western system? Doubtless, in Xīzàng, (Tibet), there would be a Tibetan Party, with off-shoots in any neighbouring provinces which have a considerable Tibetan population, Sìchuān and Qīnghǎi, for example. Doubtless, too, there would be a Wéiwú’ěr (Uighur) Party in Xīnjiāng, with again other Islamic parties in those provinces, mainly in the West or South, where there is a sizeable Moslem population. (For some reason, Moslems are regarded as an ethnic minority whereas Buddhists, Taoists and other religious groups are not.) There are, in all, 55 minorities, many of them in Yúnnán and Guǎngxī, so here too there might be a proliferation of parties, with perhaps at least one more mono-ethnic party in Inner Mongolia.

If these parties were then to contest elections under a single-preference adversarial electoral system―the worst example of which is probably FPP but, as noted above, others such as TRS can also be very divisive―relationships between various parts of the population could well deteriorate, as seen in Kenya with FPP, and in Côte d’Ivoire and the Balkans with TRS, (see above). Single preference pr list systems are sometimes not much better. In these, the voter is allowed only one preference; in a closed list system, he/she may vote only for a party (and not for a particular candidate), so if the party is sectarian, then so too is the vote. An open system at least allows the voter to choose his/her favourite from the party’s list of candidates. The more sophisticated open-list systems, meanwhile, such as that used in Switzerland, allow for multi-candidate voting, so the voter may cross the party and gender divides, not to mention any ethno-religious chasm.

Another multi-candidate electoral system is the alternative vote, AV, so here too, the voters are able to cross any ethno-religious divides; indeed, in Papua New Guinea, PNG, an AV vote is only deemed to be valid if the voter has cast at least three preferences which, because almost every candidate has a tribal allegiance, means the voter must in effect cross the divide at least twice. The PR version of AV, PR-single transferable vote, PR-STV, also allows the voter to vote across-party, as does the quota Borda system, QBS, the latter rather more positively.

If such a win-win electoral system were to be deployed, tensions could perhaps be less bitter. That said, it must also be noted that PR often, in effect, tends to perpetuate sectarianism, allowing as it does the threshold for representation to be lower than would otherwise be the case under FPP, say. Even in Northern Ireland which enjoys PR-STV, many voters choose not to cross the party divide and to vote instead, as “instructed” by the party, only for that particular party’s candidates; as often as not, the party asks voters to vote in a specified order of preference and, via such tactics of “vote management”―a democratic oxymoron―aims to gain maximum party advantage.

If, then, an adversarial electoral system were to be adopted in China, and if, subsequently, the various provincial assemblies and the national Congress were to take decisions on the basis of a (simple or weighted) majority vote, sectarianism would almost certainly become institutionalised. If, furthermore, the constitution were to allow any persons aspiring to self-determination to hold a majority vote referendum, then the very introduction of democracy, of western democracy, could herald the break-up of China. Indeed, some have predicted that “a Chinese republic would quickly degenerate into mob rule with corrupt elections and incompetent politicians” (Nathan, 1986: 61). Or, to quote Xīnhuá, the Chinese news agency, “If China imitates the West’s multi-party parliamentary democratic system, it could repeat the chaotic and turbulent history of the Cultural Revolution when factions sprung up everywhere” (Fenby, 2012: 163). Such a fate will not be tolerated by the current administration.
Western Majoritarianism
Sadly, “there is a surprisingly strong and persistent tendency in [Western] political science to equate democracy solely with majoritarian democracy and to fail to recognize [a consociationaldemocracy as an alternative and equally legitimate type” (Lijphart, 2012: 6). Not only that; not only is the adversarial model seen to be the one and only possibility but, ipso facto, other forms, including a more consensual polity, are often dismissed as undemocratic: “the Confucian ethos pervading many Asian societies stressed··· the importance of consensus. [This attitude contrastswith the primacy in American beliefs of… democracy” (Huntington, 1997: 225). So maybe, as was said by one Mr. Wú, “Westerners need to be a bit more modest. They don’t always have the right answers” (Brown, 2011: 101).

In fact, “the Western assumption of the majority’s right to overrule a dissident minority after a period of debate does violence to conceptions basic to non-Western peoples. Although the Asian and African societies differ vastly among themselves in their patterns of customary action, their native inclination is generally towards extensive and unhurried deliberation aimed at an ultimate consensus” (Emerson R, 1966: 284). Though that quotation was referring to all of Asia, the same is true today in the Middle Kingdom: “the often stated desire in Chinese public life… before implementing a solution, [is] to aim for consensus (Brown, 2011: 77).

 Copyright © 2014 by author and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).