China experts know from experience that promises made by Beijing about democratization are not reliable. It is therefore naive to anticipate political trends in the country on the basis of such statements.
However, Steven Hill apparently prefers to believe such propaganda, hence his conclusion that “China is walking a democratic path” (Taipei Times, Jan. 20, page 8).
By accepting Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) statement that “there is a need to safeguard people’s right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise,” Hill ignores the fact that many Chinese citizens are sentenced to jail for non-violent political expression, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波).
Hill discussed “deliberative democracy” and “inner-party democracy” reforms in his article, but the truth is that these will never lead to the political democratization of China.
“Socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics” designed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strictly excludes political parties and competitive elections. Indeed, in about 2006, the party prohibited local government electoral reform and began to curtail the power of local people’s congresses.
The party then prioritized “inner-party democracy” and “deliberative democracy” reforms, which were deemed “safe” because they do not dilute its own hold on political power.
Hill focuses on the importance of “inner-party democracy” because he believes the 73 million party members are a “democratic vanguard” for the democratization of China. This point of view is completely wrongheaded. Put simply, without being elected by a Chinese electorate, the party cannot reasonably claim to represent the Chinese people.
If one accepts that political democratization must begin from inside the CCP (which the party insists it does), then one is surely bound to first accept the legitimacy of China’s party-state system.
Referring to the CCP’s promotion of “inner-party democracy,” researcher Juan Linz has said that the democratization of the ruling party in an undemocratic country could easily revitalize the party and thereby extend single-party authoritarian rule.
In other words, it can be said that there is a negative correlation between the democratization of a nation and that of a monopolistic ruling party.
At present, such “inner-party democratic elections” are merely hypothetical. Neither local party elections nor local party congresses have had much success in promoting the decentralization of political power.
The promotion of “deliberative democracy” has also proved less than successful. In Zeguo Township, Zhejiang Province, those in power held “deliberative polls” among local residents, but were careful to ensure the reforms in no way impacted their own personal interests. Deliberations on issues of greatest concern to the villagers, such as land-related problems, were simply never held.
In May 2009, there was a mass protest against the government’s land policy in Zeguo Township that was violently put down by township officials and police. The event, exposed on the Internet, aroused bitter criticism that the reform was nothing more than a fraud.
Xinhe Township in Zhejiang Province sought to strengthen the ability of the local people’s congress to examine the government’s budget. However, the best way to reform such deliberative organs is by holding free elections of members. Without this, local congresses are doomed to remain “rubber stamps.”
Hill quoted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) as saying “village elections might be extended to the next level during the next few years.”
Indeed, Wen promised “direct elections at the township level” at a press conference in September 2005, only to deny this a year later when he said: “The conditions for direct elections at the township or above levels are not ripe.”
Hill also mentioned the possibility of “direct elections for the leaders of six districts in Shenzhen.” In fact, such speculation has been around for several years, but nothing has happened.
Given that the CCP prohibited government election reforms at the township level in 2006, the likelihood of any experimentation with “direct elections” in the near future is slim to non-existent. At present, the party has taken measures to prevent grassroots power from taking hold in township and county people’s congresses.
In summary, China is not heading down a democratic path. On the contrary, the CCP is determinedly walking away from anything that could lead to democratization, because its real goal is to retain its monopoly of political power, whatever it takes.
Zaijun Yuan is a doctoral candidate at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, focusing on China’s local political reforms.
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