A step toward democracy: The case of Guangzhou

| January 4th, 2010

20100104-guangzhou-01 “It’s not even a tad democratic”

This article (from Netease) got me really excited because I have always been interested in China’s democratization efforts. I previously translated a post on “How should we live before democracy?” As somewhat of a follow-up, this article will explain the changes happening in Guangzhou while also discussing how the Chinese government actually interprets democracy, which is something I’ve not seen discussed in most blogs about China (some of this is from my own blog).

In dynastic China, "the skies are high, and the Emperor is far away" is an old saying that indicates a profound disjoint between the populous and the government. There has always been a strong central government in China, but the people are generally busy running their day to day lives and they have little concern for the conduct of the Emperor. The history of revolution in modern China has disproved this statement and even the concept of revolution now has sacred, extremely powerful implications. However, gradual reform, on the other hand, is something the CCP welcomes with open arms. The case of Guangzhou now is a good example.

At the end of 2008, Guangzhou was identified as a pilot city for the construction of democracy and the rule of law. And on January 1st, this was put into practice. This means that in administrative areas, water, electricity, gas, the price adjustments of public services, matters of emergency response, the central government will report to the Guangzhou Municipal People’s Congress. In the event that the central government makes decisions that exceed their power, the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress can revoke those decisions according to law. Waste incineration, power generation and other livelihood issues are now to be decided by the People’s Congress.

From reading the comments of the Chinese netizens, it seems that the overall response is positive. One netizen asks, “How will they deal with it once the government exceeds power?”The comment with the most “likes” (1943 likes, or, 顶) so far is a netizen saying “I hope that they will do as they say! This is how it should be anyways.” Strangely, the next most “liked” comment is a doubtful netizen saying, “It’s just all in form…” Another doubtful netizen says (with 723 likes), “Whether it’s actually social progress or just making superficial changes (换汤不换药), let us eagerly wait and see.”

Yangcheng Evening News reports on January 3rd:

An official from the People’s Congress said, on January 1st, the “Guangzhou Municipal People’s Congress Standing Committee’s Decisive Measures on Major Issues” (hereinafter referred to as “measures”), will promote scientific, democratic and lawful advancements for Guangzhou’s major policy decisions.

The article then delves into a lot of Chinese political jargon for the most part, but continues with information on how power will actually be divided between the central government and the city government:

So how will the line be drawn between “People’s Congress decisions” and “governmental decisions”? An official representative from the People’s Congress explains, the People’s Congress will be the authoritative body, and the central government will be enforcement mechanism. The People’s Congress will make laws, and the government will have the job of implementation, or it can be said, the decision-making power of the People’s Congress is autonomous while the power of the government is dependent.

China’s approach to democratization has generally been based on gradualism, but in my opinion, it seems that in a lot of ways it’s probably also one step forwards, two steps backwards. Something that I feel doesn’t receive enough mention, however, is the fact that there is discourse on democracy within the CCP. One might think: What is an authoritarian government trying to accomplish with discourse on democracy? About words like democracy, Orwell says, "the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearers to think he means something quite different."

So what is democracy in the minds of the CCP? Three notions follow: primary level democracy, intra-party democracy and consultative democracy.

1. Primary level democracy: In Hu Jintao’s speech to the National Congress in October 2007, he cites that primary level democracy would include locally elected leaders managing public affairs and public service programs and expanding political participation. Since over 800 million Chinese belong to rural communities, the implementation of village level elections is a widespread politicization effort. Depending on the village, 3-7 members are elected with the decision-making power to "practice self-management, self-service, self-education, self-oversight and exercise democratic oversight over cadres. (speech here)"

2. Intra-party democracy: Hu also mentions the need to expand intra-Party democracy with the goal of "enhancing the Party’s solidarity and unity." Hu says that the working mechanisms of local Party committees will be improved and authority will be given to the local Party members to make "major decisions." These local Party members are not really democratically elected though, so the localization of power will not necessarily reflect the interests of any specific local population. Hu also emphasizes democratic centralism, a concept that has been a principle of the CCP since the days of Mao and Deng. Intra-party democracy, according to Hu, seems to be a trickle-up model of authority at best.

3. Consultative democracy: The vice-president of the Central Party School and a member of the CPPCC, Li Junru, is responsible for the idea of consultative democracy. This form of democracy is being implemented in three ways. First, there is a six-week period before party cadre appointments in which regular citizens can have input on the candidate’s qualifications. Second, local party committees have to listen to feedback from local villagers before public works are built or other projects are undertaken. Third, the CPPCC is represented by eight "democratic parties" in addition to the CCP to create a sort of "multi-party cooperation" that furthers democracy. All of these parties were founded before 1949, so they share much of the nationalist and collectivist urgency of the CCP. A good article here.

If you’re really interested, I think a good place to start is by understanding how village elections are going in China. A pretty good article here and the Carter Center has a China Program that focuses on village elections.

4 Comments | Leave a comment | Comment feed

  1. 白人Brian says:

    An insightful observation. I hope to read more on this in the future. =)

  2. XiaoWang says:

    Sounds like a good idea but there’s been PLENTY of talk and ideas in the past, most of which have been revoked or changed a lot before and after implementation. In due time we will see which parts stick to the wall. I believe these ideas are Hu’s and the Central Commitee’s long run take on the widespread annoyance and occasional corruption of local rural officials trying to rule their areas like their own private fifedoms. Good luck with that Hu Jintao,, anything that can make things more transparant and better for the hard ridden rural population gets a thumbs up from me. Would probably never have said this 10 years ago but now I actually think the CCP is doing a pretty decent job governing this massive country.

  3. Kay says:

    Sounds like i was out and missed this news,,,

  4. JOSE says:

    I read a little about this and I think is a good beggining (teorical) but my opinion is that in the practice is not handled well, anyway just an opinion

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