Telling the Story of a Democracy with “Chinese Characteristics”

Text: Martine Asker, Master’s student in Political Science with a Bachelor’s degree in China Studies 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to enjoy a high degree of popular support within mainland China. Yet, surveys show that the Chinese rate their own country to be a fairly democratic one. How can this be explained? 

Illustrasjon 1: Illustration by Bakhtiar Zein, 

During a meeting of the NPC’s Standing Committee in October this autumn, Head of China’s top legislative body and senior Party leader, Li Zhanshu urged fellow Party members to resist political pressure from the West and start “telling the story of China’s democracy”. According to the newest World Values Survey most mainland Chinese respondents believe democracy to be a good fit for China, as well as rating China to be a 7 out of 10 on a scale of “how democratic” they believe their country is. After the committee meeting this autumn, experts proclaim a rhetorical shift within the CCP. Yet, the concept of “democracy with Chinese characteristics” is not at all new. The concept has been debated in scholarly literature since the 1990’s in an attempt to explain and define the Chinese political system. The word “democracy” has been used in different settings by the CCP many times throughout their rule. Now you might wonder, how is it possible to define the Chinese model as a real democracy?  

Not a “Fake Democracy”? 

“…it is not a fake democracy where Western politicians make high-profile promises during election campaigns and then don’t deliver afterward. China is now confident that its democracy is real compared to the fake democracy of the West.” -Li Zhanshu 

The concept of a democratic political system with “Chinese characteristics” was first presented in academia by Professor Wang of Beijing University in an interview with political theorist Daniel A. Bell. Professor Wang then questioned the ability of democratically elected leaders in Western democracies’ ability to actually get things done. He said “I worry about political systems which empower “feel good” politicians, who manage to get elected by promising the moon to their constituents… and never mind the long-term consequences… From my perspective the ideal is a political system that guarantees bright and farsighted rulers and yet holds them somewhat accountable for what they do.” On a similar note, after the meeting this October, expert Xie Maosong commented in the South China Morning Post that Li Zhanshu’s statement signals that the CCP has finally gained the confidence to call their system a real democracy which fulfils its commitments to the people, and that “it is not a fake democracy where Western politicians make high-profile promises during election campaigns and then don’t deliver afterward. China is now confident that its democracy is real compared to the fake democracy of the West.”  

Democratic Understanding: Political Rights vs. Social and Economic Safety 

Maybe surprising to some, “democracy” is not a matter of “either/or”, but is commonly measured in “degrees”. In political science literature, the concept of democracy has been defined and categorized in numerous ways. As a result, a number of indexes for measuring degrees of democracy have been constructed. These indexes have mostly been constructed by scholars from democratic countries, and their measures all encompass the importance of free and competitive elections as well as the universal right to vote, free speech and existence of democratic governmental institutions. Needless to say, according to these indexes, lacking competitive elections on a governmental level, the Chinese model is not entirely up to par, and cannot score particularly high on the democracy scale. Why, then, would China scholars and even the CCP use the word “democracy” when defining the Chinese model? And how come the Chinese people rate their own system as high as a 7 out of 10 on a democracy scale?  

We could attempt to find an explanation from a phenomenon much discussed in political science called democratic understanding. This is a bit technical, but bear with me:  Political scientists list three types of “democratic understanding”: Instrumental or substantive understanding, procedural understanding, and authoritarian understanding. In our setting we will mainly focus on the procedural/substantive and the instrumental categories. A procedural understanding of democracy means that a person perceives democracy as something that ensures the use of free elections to choose political leaders, political rights, human rights and equal rights for women and men etc. This view is very common in Western, and older democracies. On the flip side, an instrumental understanding is more focused on whether democratic governance is efficient in delivering improved living standards, economic growth, maintaining law and public safety against crime. The instrumental understanding has been prevalent among the Chinese people for many years. But is this still the case?  

I <3 China. Propaganda installation in the event of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 2019. Taken by author in 2019

Democracy with “Chinese characteristics” or Just Simply “Democracy”? 

Now, according to the newest results of the World Values Survey conducted in 2018 in mainland China, over 90% of the respondents believe democracy is a good way of governing their country. On a scale from 1 (“not at all important”) to 10 (“absolutely important”), almost 50% answer that it is “absolutely important” for them to live in a democracy. And on a scale from 1 to 10 on the question “how democratic do you believe your country is?” the mean answer was, as mentioned, a 7. This means that most respondents believe China to be a fairly democratic country. This is where it gets interesting: according to these data, the median Chinese citizen believes China to be democratic. Could this indeed be an instance of differing democratic understanding?  

“China scholars argue that one of the reasons for China succeeding in keeping their regime form is by being responsive to the needs and wishes of the people, making sure people are generally satisfied.” 

When answering questions about which aspects are important to democratic rule, most respondents of the WVS in China answer favorably for elections, economic equality, equality between women and men, but also that civil rights should protect people from oppression from the state. This shows that even though most of the respondents believe China to be a democracy, they also show more of a procedural understanding of what democracy really is, which is quite on par with how people in actual democracies understand the word “democracy”. A study by political scientist Zhai Yidai further show that the democratic understanding in China has shifted from being mostly instrumental up until around the year of 2016, focusing on economic and social security, to becoming increasingly aligned with the understanding of democracy as we know it here in the West. His study shows that the Chinese people indeed place greater importance on personal freedom and elections than before (in the case of China this would be elections on local levels, as they do not have national elections).  

These findings reveal that the Chinese understanding of how a democracy should function has been differing from the understanding of people in the West, but decreasingly so. And with these findings it is not too convincing for us to believe that the theory of democratic understanding itself explains China’s confidence in the democratic qualities of their governmental model.  

Chinese independence anniversary celebration and unity. People of China crowd group of people standing protesting together stand gathering in public. Vector illustration

Utilizing the Word “Democracy” When Framing the Political Discourse 

“…many Chinese people feel contempt towards the West attempting to moralize and tell China what to do, making people question whether the Western models actually ensure good rule for the people who live in it compared to their own system.” 

Throughout the years since the Party got into power, the CCP has conducted thorough work with framing the political discourse. The CCP has actually been consistent in using “democracy” as a tool in painting a picture of the Chinese model. Their regime type has been defined in numerous ways such as: “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “socialist democracy”, and even “the people’s democratic dictatorship”. The main point has always been that the Chinese model is the only right model for China, and that the Chinese system is indeed democratic, but with modifications that fit China better. The CCP has been portraying the West, and especially the US, almost as an “enemy” which attempts to force China into taking on their beliefs against their will. This is a discourse that has been easy for the Chinese people to accept considering China’s history of Western invasions, and “the century of humiliation”. Indeed, this has ensured that many Chinese people feel contempt towards the West attempting to moralize and tell China what to do, making people question whether the Western models actually ensure good rule for the people who live in it compared to their own system. This could actually be a big contributor to why people in China, despite of actually having a good understanding of the concept of democracy, still review their model as quite democratic.  

High Degrees of Popular Regime Support 

The CCP has often made use of the phrase “一民为主” when talking about their politics, which could roughly be translated as “prioritizing the people”. China scholars argue that one of the reasons for China’s success in keeping their regime form is by being responsive to the needs and wishes of the people, making sure people are generally satisfied. By ensuring stability, economic growth and prosperity, the CCP enjoy a high degree of popular support and trust. By establishing lower level elections, and other institutional channels for political participation such as local elections, “the mayor’s mailbox”, help lines, and hearings, the Party also ensures that people have channels to express their everyday concerns. This communication is much valued by the Party, as they are able to pick up upon which improvements must be made in order to maintain a certain degree of satisfaction and stability in the society, and in some cases do something about it. This ensures some lower levels of democratic participation, again contributing to a possible answer to our search of an explanation to why the Chinese favorably view the democratic nature of their system.  

Democracy vs. Responsive Authoritarianism  

How can we then define a system such as the Chinese one? I guess there is no correct answer to this question, as it all seems to boil down to popular individual understandings and definitions of regime types. In my humble opinion, the democratic beliefs of a people should not be taken lightly, nor be overruled by elite-made indexes. It is thus important to take into consideration the mainland Chinese people’s evaluations of their own regime.  However, the reality is still that China lacks some basic institutions ensuring universal political rights, which makes it difficult to argue that the Chinese model is indeed a democratic one. Some scholars suggest that one could define the Chinese model as a type of “responsive authoritarianism”. Authoritarian in the sense that they still do not have popular elections at a national level, only allow one party, and still lack in a few aspects the West believes to be important for a true democratic rule, such as complete freedom of speech. Yet, the government is still highly responsive to the wishes of the general public, ensuring basic needs and prosperity, and making room for institutionalized channels for people to express their opinions and contribute to the political discourse. This shows in the relatively high degree of popular support towards the central government which has been measured through several independent surveys on values and attitudes throughout the years such as the World Values Survey or the Asian Barometer. Combined with CCP’s framing of the political discourse, these are all factors that could further explain Chinese people’s evaluation of their own regime.   

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