Sunday, March 14, 2010

China's Democratic Reforms

Today, the Associated Press reported on the wrap-up of China's National People's Congress. A largely rubber-stamp legislative body of 3,000 delegates, this year's Congress passed the Communist Party government's annual report with 97.5 percent approval.

Although not a central part of the story, the article goes on to state the following:
"Delegates, who include hundreds of army officers, themselves are carefully vetted by Communist Party officials and selected in a perfunctory election by lower-level committees."
[Emphasis added]
It's true that most of these delegates are predetermined in the high-level politics of China, yet the abundance of reporting out of the West on the "perfunctory" processes in Chinese politics understandably skews the perception of its audiences. As much as those in America or elsewhere buy into the common narrative that China is a near-totalitarian regime, it has been experimenting seriously with inner-party democratic reform in lower level elections for over 14 years.

According to one report (PDF) by Joseph Fewsmith in the China Leadership Monitor , in 2001-02, about 5,000 of 16,000 official positions were chosen through elections, some more democratic than others. In some places, there have even been direct, competitive elections for a position, called a “public recommendation, direct election” (公推直选).

And aside from the institutionalized democratic processes, like elections, there are all types of democratic negotiating in China via social movements -- a field which I research. For example, workers might protest over nonpayment in China's southern sunbelt region and, wanting not to risk larger instability, local governments appease their demands. Democracy is more than punching a ballot.

Is China a one-party state? Yes. Is it more repressive than most states in the West? Yes.

But these facts are beside the point. Westerners, and particularly Western media and newswires, have to start seeing some of the complexity in the gigantic world of Chinese politics. As much as it confuses our worldview, we might have to decide that China is not Big Brother.

This post also appeared on RealClearWorld.

(AP photo)


  1. About the China's National People's Congress, do you notice that most Chinese people concern more about the entertainment part of the representatives such as what they wear and which pop stars are the representatives rather than the politics/policy decision? Chinese are trying to be involved in ways they can say somethings.It's effortless, but still a try.

  2. Even though it's for different reasons (i.e., it's a sensitive political topic in China), Chinese people are more like Americans in their political chatter, then! Americans, even though they can vote for national leaders, often put their focus on superficial issues of fashion or soundbites or other equally marginal factors.