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CNN's China claims its authoritarian one-party system is a democracy -- and one that works better than the US says:

In his keynote speech, Huang Kunming, the ruling Communist Party's propaganda tsar, extolled China's so-called "whole-process people's democracy" -- a concept put forward by Chinese leader Xi Jinping -- describing it as a "true democracy that works."

Huang later expounded on the theory, confusingly insisting it "integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people's democracy with the will of the state."

In tandem to the event, China's cabinet, the State Council, released Saturday with fanfare a white paper titled "China: Democracy That Works."

"There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms. Assessing the myriad political systems in the world against a single yardstick and examining diverse political structures in monochrome are in themselves undemocratic," the 13,000-word document said.

A very important document and guideline for political thought in China is Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and it is likely that public statements by Chinese officials will be at the very least consistent with Xi Jinping Thought, and likely refer to it directly or indirectly.

Question: What exactly is China's "whole-process people's democracy"? In what ways does it function "democratically" based on traditional definitions?

The term seems fairly new, is there a clear enough understanding of what it is and by what mechanism it works to compare it to more traditional forms and understandings of democracy?

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4 Answers 4

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Elections in the People's Republic of China are based on a hierarchical electoral system, whereby local People's Congresses are directly elected. All higher levels of People's Congresses up to the National People's Congress (NPC), the national legislature, are indirectly elected by the People's Congress of the level immediately below.

In other words, while there are elections in which Chinese citizens vote at the local level, higher tiers of government are chosen from elections in which only those elected at the lower tier, and not citizens ( as is the norm in federal democracies such as USA and India ), vote. Thus, the influence of the Chinese public decreases the higher the tier of government is, being virtually none at the national level.

Further, all electoral candidates are largely determined by the Chinese Communist Party. Thus, there is a lack of a democratic opposition which is integral to the functioning of any democracy.

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    The President of the United States is also indirectly elected.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 12:15
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    @gerrit That is what is usually pulled out at this time. The difference, of course, is that we had two rather diametrically opposed candidate which the electoral college could choose. If this were China, the candidate(s) for President from which the Electoral College could choose would both have been chosen by ... oh, wait, never mind.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 13:01
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    @CGCampbell Technically, just as China has restictions on who can run for president, so does the United States. (Some) People just believe the United States restrictions are "fairer". Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 14:16
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    As Jinping is both the President of China and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, and all candidate for posts at all levels have to come from the CCP, there is inherently a lack of true democracy, in my opinion. If the US had laws that state that all candidate must come from the RNC and that the current President were also the Chair of the RNC, then the US would be in much the same position. If China were to amend its constitution and laws to allow candidates from non-State controlled parties, then the "West" would have less of an argument against China being a "true" democracy.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 14:47
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    @EkadhSingh: 35 years of age is an entirely reasonable (if arbitrary) qualification for the leader of an entire country. Natural-born citizen is probably not fair by modern standards, but it still allows a fairly large swath of people with widely varying political affiliations to run, so I don't think it can be argued to seriously impair the US's democratic legitimacy. China, OTOH, basically says you can't run unless the CCP likes you, which is far less democratic.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 23:24
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This answer is inspired by Liza Tobin's essay "Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies"Fn.1; I draw on no new knowledge or insight into China here.

With that said, we (Westerners) conventionally interpret of "democracy" as

The policies of a countries government are determined by the opinions of — and go to benefit — the majority of that country's residents.

As I argue below, this stands in contraposition to authoritarianism and colonialism. Western democracies believe they are democratic because they are not (typically) authoritarian; China believes it is democratic because it is not colonized.

Any government, even an extremely undemocratic one, has a "selectorate": a minimal set of stakeholders who must remain pleased for the government to stay in power. Democracy is thus a twofold condition: a democratic government must have some social technology to integrate the opinions of its selectorate, and it must ensure that the views of the selectorate remain representative of the populace as a whole.

Conventional Western democracies have a very strong and powerful tool for integrating the views of a large selectorate to produce coherent government policy: competitive elections. Using this tool, they are able to expand their selectorate to almost their entire population, so that a majority of the selectorate is guaranteed to represent the opinions of the populace.

Or so you'd think! The theory of the Overton window suggests that the true selectorate in Western democracies is not in fact the voters, but rather the "chattering classes" that help produce arguments to convince voters; the strong influence of money in politics then tends to artificially restrict the Overton Window, so that the selectorate is no longer representative of the populace.

Perhaps for this reason, the bogeyman for Western democracies is the tyrannical European monarchies of the 16th through 19th centuries, in which the small selectorate lead to strong restrictions on freedom of the press and freedom of conscience.

Conversely, without free elections, China has a very weak tool to integrate a small selectorate. The other answers discuss the Chinese electoral system thoroughly; in order to maintain power at the apex, all (all!) Xi Jinping (say) need do is placate his immediate subordinates.

Instead, the Chinese focus their efforts to maintain democracy on ensuring that this small selectorate is representative of the populace as a whole, a process they call "consultation." Roughly 7% of Chinese citizens is a member of the CCP and their professional advancement (even in non-political fields!) is strongly dependent on maintaining good status in the party. At the local level, party leaders value consensus amongst party members highly. So once the party leaders settle on a policy, citizens tend to coordinate their views to match (cf. Arendt on Gleichschaltung). At the same time, the party's tentacular reach into civil society and the business community allows it (in theory) unprecedented insight into emerging discontent, which it can then "head off at the pass".

The bogeyman for modern Chinese national thought is 19th century imperial subordination, in which the small selectorate (of foreign capitalist investors) was hardly representative the Chinese peasantry. Indeed, those investors' non-Chinese ethnicity almost guaranteed it! Unsurprisingly, Chinese democracy attempts to guard against this failure mode.

I leave it to you to judge whether the Chinese method is successful at developing democracy (cough cough Tibet cough cough) and — if successful — sustainably so.

Fn. 1: I was linked to Tobin's article by Tanner Greer essay "Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party?", which answers a similar enough question that I feel obliged to link to it here.

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    The Tanner Greer essay is excellent. Americans have a hard time understanding that Xi Jinping (for better or worse) seems to be a sincere Marxist. The cynical interpretation in the other answers reflects a similar inability to understand the CCP on its own terms, very much like someone on the autism spectrum with poor Theory of Mind. Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 15:52
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    Why do you say that most Chinese citizens are members of the Communist Party? From what I can tell, its official membership is around 95 million people., far from everyone in China. The very article that you linked talking about the importance of CCP membership for career advancement gives similar numbers for party membership. In fact, it suggests that it has been Xi who has made the membership requirements more stringent.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 5:45
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    @Obie2.0: Misremembered my source. I have corrected the post now; sorry! Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 8:22
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It is, ultimately, a multi-tier representative ‘democratic’ system where each tier elects their representatives in the next higher tier. Public elections elect the local officials, who then are the ones who elect the next level of representation, and so on up to the national level.

This technically does fit the definition of a democracy, albeit very loosely. In practice though, the general public has effectively zero influence on politics because:

  • By definition, public influence decreases as you get higher and higher in the hierarchy.
  • China is a single-party state, and the CCP has near absolute control of who can actually run for election no matter what level of government you are talking about.

This is ultimately conceptually similar to how the USSR’s ‘soviet’ system worked, where local organizational units would have a local council, who would then send delegates to the next tier up, then that tier would send delegates to the next tier up and so on up to the national level. The key difference is that China’s system affords more control to the government about who could be elected at a given tier.


Rather interestingly, a vast majority of countries in the world today actually meet the bare minimum definition of a democracy, at least by how they define their own governmental processes. This includes countries nominally recognized as authoritarian states by most external observers, such as the DPRK or Venezuela. There are a small handful of absolute monarchies still hanging on (Saudi Arabia is the largest), and a couple of military dictatorships, but as a general rule it’s easier for a government to govern if they can make people think they are able to influence policy, hence ‘democratic’ rule has become the norm no matter how authoritarian the state actually is.

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    "China is a single-party state, and the CCP has near absolute control of who can actually run for election no matter what level of government you are talking about." By this measure, effectively single-party states like Oklahoma or California, and deep-red or deep-blue US municipalities are also not democratic. Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 21:33
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    @BetterthanKwora: I don't know how it works in Oklahoma, but in California, the candidate chooses the party which is listed next to them on the ballot. There's no gatekeeping; people deliberately choose to list themselves as Republicans or independents. If you want to call yourself a "Democrat," nobody can stop you from doing that, regardless of your policy positions.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 23:29
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    @BetterthanKwora Not sure if it’s intentional, but there appears to be a disconnect here in your understanding of the meaning of ‘single-party state’. ‘State‘ here is in the same sense as in ‘Secretary of State’, not the ‘province’ sense that most people in the US seem to assume it means, and the whole term is a standard term from political science referring to a ‘state’ where there is exactly one political party present because they actively eliminate all opposition. The PRC, the DPRK, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Eritrea, and SADR are all single-party states currently, as was the USSR historically. Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 13:51
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    @BetterthanKwora There is no restriction in California on who can run for office. A Republican is unlikely to win, but democracy doesn't mean that anyone can win an election; in fact, it means the opposite (in that unpopular parties, in a democracy, lose elections). And it's misleading to say the US wasn't a multiparty democracy at its founding; it's not that it was single-party, it was that parties as we know them today hadn't formed yet. Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 23:11
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    While there may be some public elections of local officials somewhere in China, I'm not sure that there are widespread public elections for the lowest-level officials. I would love to see one of the answers break that down more specifically.
    – Mike M
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 14:56
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As an ordinary Chinese who borned, grown, educated, working in mainland China, I can tell you that the "whole-process people's democracy" is not democracy at all. It's just a trick to deceive the Western world.

Most ordinary people in China would not see a vote in their entir life. Only a very few ordinary people (most of them are college students) can vote in the lowest level of elections, they know nothing about the candidates which they vote for, which could be considered as a ridiculous democracy show.

Just like "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics", it's not socialism at all. (Just like name a tomato as "Apple with Chinese Characteristics", it's not apple at all)


Edit:

Q: What kind of ordinary people can participate in the election?

A:

  1. College students/teachers in good universities such as 985/211: 四川大学:我校顺利进行武侯区、双流区人大代表换届选举
  2. Doctors in hosptial founded by the goverment: 北京协和医院:第九届工代会第七届职代会召开
  3. Teachers in goverment-found school: 深圳中学:我校区人大代表选举工作顺利完成

Q: Why did I say: "they know nothing about the candidates which they vote for"?

A: First, I used to vote once like this as a college school student, none of my classmates know anything about the candidates, as same as what happened to my friends in other universities. Second, in a country which there is a real election, you can easy find candidates' political advocacy even in the lowest level elections via Internet. But you can't find anything about the candidates in China even the Internet is fully controlled by the goverment (I say goverment actully is the ruling Party which is the CCP)

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    @uhoh Thanks a lot for your reminders! I added some Q&As with links to support my opinions.
    – user975384
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 2:13
  • Looks great, thanks!
    – uhoh
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 2:20

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