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Why Democracy Fits A democratic foundation that goes beyond sloganeering will be needed for the Communist Party of China to maintain legitimacy

December 20, 2011

From Caixin Weekly:

Caixin Weekly: China Economics & Finance (Caixin Media)
 December 15, 2011, 

By Cai Xia | 1258 words 

Following the successful Chinese revolution in 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) built a new nation on the ruins of an autocracy. This bestowed a number of historic missions upon the CPC. One was to take the lead in creating a modern political system that should embrace socialist constitutional democracy. However, we are still striving for change, and we have a long road ahead. A revolution can overthrow a regime, yet it cannot fully dispel an autocracy's shadow. Revolution can shake the world, yet alone it's not enough to lay a foundation on which to build a modern democracy. The word "democracy" has been used in slogans during the past century of Chinese history, from the 1911 Revolution and through the Cultural Revolution of 1966 -1976. But Communist Party members, since coming to power, have continued to resolve matters in any way they see fit, all in the name of revolution. The concept of "dictatorship by the masses" that has been popular in China for the past 60 years has been in essence simply a Chinese form of "tyranny of the majority." The 1949 Revolution moved China off a path leading to democracy. One could argue that this style of governing is due to Chinese society's unique history, or the influence of Soviet communism and the CPC's limited knowledge in building a political system. Whatever the case, to this day, China has not achieved the goal of building a modern, democratic political system. Constitutional democracy has emerged for different reasons and in different ways. However, a minimum requirement in each case is a sound, socioeconomic base and a modern market economy, at least to a certain extent. A country without a market economy does not have sufficiently varied social structures and interests, and therefore there is not enough pressure to respect and safeguard citizen's rights. Without market economy, civil society cannot grow: The checks and balances that regulate constitutional democracy are lacking. If a modern polity is not built on sound socioeconomic foundations, the phrase "constitutional democracy" becomes little more than a slogan. Indeed, because China did not have a market-economy training ground for a constitutional democracy before 1978, the reality of political life has not supported a constitution that gave power to the people. First, it is hard to ensure that every member of a society enjoys democracy with full political rights. Second, the multifaceted political ideology of a "people's republic" was usurped by a uniform "majoritarian democracy." Moreover, a flawed constitution led the party to abandon majoritarian democracy. Some party leaders even took advantage of this political switch to allow an erosion of civil rights. Majoritarian democracy was easily replaced by a tyranny of the majority in the name of revolution. The CPC strongly emphasized a people's democracy based on class rule, but it did not attach enough importance to establishing a concrete, democratic system. As a result, despite setting up a basic framework for a people's democracy, the revolution failed to produce a constitutional government with proper limits and a separation of powers. Not only did this reduce talk of democracy to mere sloganeering, but it led to a new era of excessively centralized power, personality cults, and a system that rewards officials privileges according to rank. It allowed the tradition of autocracy to once again shape the nation's political life. China's government has long neglected the interests of building a constitutional democracy. It has come to rely on a track record of achievements and charismatic leaders for political legitimacy. However, this has left China with a fragile political foundation that can be difficult to repair. Rapid change in society and growing signs of increasing social friction have made China's leaders anxious. This has, once again, pushed the party toward further strengthening its authority and political control, with the effect of exacerbating corruption and the abuse of power, while weakening constitutional and legal rights. Building a modern political community and establishing a constitutional democracy are historic missions for the Communist Party that can no longer be ignored. There is a huge divide between revolutionary and democratic political thinking. Revolution is a zero-sum game, which means victory is only attained at the expense of all who oppose. Democracy is a positive-sum game, characterized by defending shared interests so as to reach an outcome that can be acceptable to all parties. Revolution does not recognize the human rights of the opposition. Democracy recognizes the equal rights of all political opponents, and lets them compete for respective causes on the foundations of the rule of law. Revolution leads to a rebellion that tries to topple the existing social order. Democracy emphasizes strengthening social order and social equality within the scope of law. To deepen reform and build a stable yet adaptable political system, China must overhaul its political thinking, relax the policy environment, and allow the public to take an active role in political debates and consultation. Meanwhile, widespread, internal corruption that's been more frequently discovered is eroding the party's authority and public trust. A number of party leaders are worried about this trend, and as a warning they have evoked in public remarks the concept of "the cyclical rise and fall of regimes" - a concept that dates to agricultural civilizations and reflects the still-traditional political culture of the party. First, the "rise and fall of regimes" idea implies that power lies in the hands of government officials, not in the hands of the public. It goes against the concept of "sovereignty of the people," which dictates that the public exercise democratic rights to elect and supervise the government for society's sake. Governments may frequently change in a modern democracy. Yet it is quite different from the "rise and fall of regimes" in the traditional sense. Second, the rise and fall of regimes in agrarian societies of the past resulted from enormous social turmoil or the collapse of society along with mass suffering. In a modern democracy, the people's basic livelihoods are safeguarded by a constitution and are no longer at the mercy of political change. How should government use its authority? President Hu Jintao has stated that the government must "function by the mandate of the people, empathize with the feelings of the people, and work for the well-being of the people." In conclusion, the underlying concept in modern political systems is "sovereignty of the people" built upon two, fundamental pillars: universal suffrage, and checks and balances via a separation of powers. There are three facets to this: separation of party and state; separation of civil society and state; and separation of local and central governments. There are also two, key features of universal suffrage: competitive elections within the party, and democratic general elections. "Equal treatment for all" is an ideal embedded in establishing a modern political community. This contrasts with collectivism, the core philosophy of Chinese traditional culture, which sees individuals as tools to achieve collective goals, and the belief that no one is worthwhile independent from the whole. This collectivism has been strengthened by the unifying effect on ethnic, class and individual interests during China's historic periods of hardship. Yet this culture of collectivism has turned people into mere political labels during China's modern development period. Each person is an official statistic, a political tool. In some cases, blood has been shed simply to complete a political project, or for purely selfish purposes. Democracy, as a system, acknowledges that people need dignity to live. It is a system that, in promoting individual freedom and ongoing development, lets the public exercise public authority. Most importantly, it is a system that can peacefully resolve society's conflicts. (The author is a professor at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China) 
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