China’s democracy

Most East Asian and Southeast Asian countries chose to become economically fit for democracy. India provided a contrasting model.

China’s democracy

Representation image

Most East Asian and Southeast Asian countries chose to become economically fit for democracy. India provided a contrasting model. It chose to become economically fit through democracy. India consciously chose democracy knowing full well that democracy was a daily plebiscite in which demand for more power, more autonomy represented a daily interrogation of that existence.

The newly decolonised countries of Africa borrowed from the West what Ali Mazrui, Kenyan born American writer called, “the profit motive, but not the entrepreneurial spirit… learnt to parade in display, but not to drill in discipline.” Communist China faced its own dilemma. Could it economically modernise without culturally westernising? Like the Japanese, the Chinese chose to follow Western technique, but Chinese spirit. When China began economic reform, it did just the reverse of what many African countries did. As Mazrui explains, Africa became “westernised in prayer, but not production; in idiom, but not innovation; in costume, but not computer.”

China’s rise is phenomenal by all accounts. The world’s second largest economy is today a major global player. Its voice counts as also its clout. When in 2021 US President Joe Biden hosted a Summit for Democracy and snubbed China by not inviting President Xi Jinping, Beijing decided not to take it lying down. It claimed that China had a high-functioning form of democracy of a different sort, and that it is delivering better results for its people than the broken U.S. system. China came out with a ‘whole-process people’s democracy.’ It was also designed to show that China can stand up to the United States, and to counter the suggestion that the Chinese system is inferior to the democracies that Biden had brought together.


Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng adopted an aggressive stance by claiming that China’s whole-process people’s democracy is not the kind that “wakes up at the time of voting and goes back to dormant afterwards.” China’s State Council came out with a 30-page White Paper, entitled, “China: Democracy That Works. It redefined democracy with a promise to “hunt down tigers, swat flies and chase foxes”. The State Council said that China had no intention to “duplicate western models of democracy” but to “create its own.” Beijing took the line that it is not for “a few selfappointed judges like QUAD, Five Eyes and the G7 to decide which country is democratic and which is not.”

To counter Biden’s Summit for Democracy, Beijing hosted an international forum on democracy and invited academics, think tank representatives and media personnel from 120 countries to participate in it. The third Beijing international forum on democracy was organised on 20 March 2024. Through these forums, China is seeking to counter what it calls US democracy ‘monism’. China is not disowning democracy. It is embracing what Daniel A. Bell in his book China’s New Confucianism, calls “a new variant of Confucianism” that offers a compelling alternative to Western liberalism.

New Confucianism has played a significant role in the Sinicization of Marxism. What Deng Xiao Ping had coined as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has now been re-branded as the “wholeprocess people’s democracy”. It is a major element of Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. What is ‘whole-process democracy’? President Xi, while making an inspection visit to a civic centre in Hongqiao sub district in Shanghai on 2 November 2019, said that China was “taking the path of socialist political development with Chinese characteristics and people’s democracy is whole process.” According to Prof Lin Jianhus of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wholeprocess democracy has four key features.

First, the term is manifested in the CPC’s governance practices and is applied through a combination of democratic elections, consultations and decision-making. China claims that it covers all aspects of the democratic process. Second, it ensures that the people’s wishes are widely represented and recognises their fundamental interests in all respects. Third, it integrates processoriented democracy with resultoriented, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy and people’s democracy with the will of the state.

Fourth, whole-process democracy presents a path of socialist political progress with Chinese characteristics in line with China’s national conditions. He claims that wholeprocess democracy has made the people the ‘masters’ of the country. He also maintains that China has a system of multi party cooperation. The CPC and eight other political parties uphold the principles of long-term coexistence through forums, talks and other forms of consultation. The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference serves as an important institution of multi-party cooperation under the leadership of CPC. Few western scholars would rank China as a democracy.

They argue that China follows a model where the state advances as the people retreat. As Jacob Dreyer, a writer who has lived in Shanghai for over a decade, maintains, “the collection of peoples we call China is not really a society of citizens in the sense that emerged from the American and French revolutions.” However, John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, is of the view that the Chinese governance model “contains democratic qualities that should not be dismissed.” There is a very strong sense in the political system that “power ultimately rests in the hands of the people.” Like America’s Freedom House and Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, which rate civil liberties across the world, China organised a global survey in 23 countries last year about its ‘whole-process democracy.’

The respondents agreed, claims the survey, that each country should choose democracy and a modernisation model that suits its own conditions. The survey endorsed the view that democracy should focus on solving people’s practical problems. The respondents also believe that Chinese democracy is conducive to promoting state and global governance. A crisis in democracy need not be a crisis of democracy. The only way to remedy democracy’s imperfections is to have more democracy, not less.

The West’s cynicism about the Chinese model is understandable. One of the greatest challenges to democracy comes from a catastrophic failure of the marketplace of ideas. But what about the rise of elected autocrats in the democratic world? Hasn’t the media in many democracies become scrappy truth-tellers? Doesn’t democracy require binding values and ideals and shared convictions? Today, democracy across the world looks alive and dead at the same time. Physician, heal thyself!

(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)