China’s Democratic Baby Steps

By Steven Hill, Project Syndicate distribution, January 27, 2011 (published by The Guardian, Korea Herald, Japan Times, Toronto Star, Times of India, Burma Digest, Egypt Daily News, Macau Daily Times, Kiev Day and others)

WASHINGTON, DC – During the state visit to the United States of Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Barack Obama pressed Hu on human rights. He probably should have asked more about spreading democracy in China, because he might have been surprised by what he heard.

In September 2010, Hu gave a speech in Hong Kong in which he called for new thinking about Chinese democracy. He said, “There is a need to…hold democratic elections according to the law; have democratic decision-making, democratic management as well as democratic supervision; safeguard people’s right to know, to participate, to express, and to supervise.”

His remarks elaborated on previous comments by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, delivered in Shenzhen, the coastal free-enterprise zone where China’s economic revolution began. Wen said that political reform, including opportunities for citizens to criticize and monitor the government, is necessary to sustain China’s breakneck economic growth. Otherwise, he argued, the country’s economic gains would be lost.

Wen’s remarks led to speculation that Shenzhen, which set the pace for China’s economic development, could soon become a “special political zone.” China experts noted that a next step could be direct elections for the chiefs of the Special Economic Zone’s six districts.

Most non-Chinese would be surprised to learn that the country already holds more elections than any other in the world. Under the Organic Law of the Village Committees, all of China’s approximately one million villages – home to roughly 600 million voters – hold local elections every three years.

Critics scoff that local Communist Party officials manipulate these elections. But, according to research by Robert Benewick, a professor at the University of Sussex in England, village elections have been growing more competitive, with a greater number of independent candidates and increasing use of the secret ballot. For those elections that have been genuinely competitive, researchers claim to have found evidence of positive effects.

For example, in a study that looked at 40 villages over 16 years, the economist Yao Yang found that the introduction of elections had led to increased spending on public services by 20%, while reducing spending on “administrative costs” – bureaucratese for corruption – by 18%. And Wen has indicated that village elections might be extended to the next highest government level – township administrations – over the next few years.

China’s modest experiments with local elections have been supplemented by exercises in “deliberative democracy.” These take the form of high-tech town hall meetings. Chinese officials hired Stanford University professor James Fishkin to draft a representative sample of citizens from Zeguo for an assembly using keypad polling devices and handheld computers to decide how the city should spend a $6 million public-works budget. The Zeguo exercise was considered hugely successful, and has been replicated elsewhere in China.

Professor Yu Keping, an influential Communist official and author of a prominent book calledDemocracy Is a Good Thing, is said to have the ear of President Hu. Professor Yu and others have been nudging democracy forward within the Communist Party itself. Competitive elections for lower-level party posts have already been held, with votes for provincial and national party congresses showing electoral slates with 15-30% more candidates than positions.

Since the Communist Party has a membership of 73 million people, such a “democratic vanguard” holds great potential. If internal elections become widespread, the lines of ideological disagreement within elite circles might become more clearly drawn, which could further spur calls for some kind of representative institutional structure. Rapid change in China already has resulted in a battle of ideas, pitting the coasts and cities against the countryside and inland provinces, and the rich against the poor.

Of course, as Chinese democracy develops, it is unlikely to replicate the Western model. Confucian-inspired intellectuals like Jiang Qing, for example, have put forward an innovative proposal for a tricameral legislature. Legislators in one chamber would be selected on the basis of merit and competency, and in the others on the basis of elections of some kind. One elected chamber might be reserved only for Communist Party members, the other for representatives elected by ordinary Chinese.

Such a tricameral legislature, its proponents believe, would better ensure that political decisions are made by more educated and enlightened representatives, thereby avoiding the rank populism of Western-style elected factions.

It is intriguing to contemplate China embracing some sort of innovative democratic experiment, combining tricameralism with deliberative democracy methods to mold a new separation of powers – and thus a new type of political accountability.

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was quoted in 1987 as saying that there would be national elections in 50 years. China’s democratic trajectory generates little fanfare, but it may actually deliver on Deng’s promise ahead of schedule.

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