Democracy with Chinese characteristics

The Chinese Communist Party has long stood for democracy -- just not the kind Hong Kong protesters are asking for.

Beyond inspiring global solidarity, the impassioned pleas for genuine democracy in Hong Kong are even converting mainland Chinese to the cause.

Determined though they may be, these democratic demands for elections free of interference from the authorities in Beijing are up against a force much more powerful than Hong Kong’s riot police: The Chinese central government’s steadfast commitment to its model of managed quasi-democracy.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would have us believe that its theorists and leaders share the protestors’ democratic instincts.

Writing in 2006, Yu Keping -- a prominent Chinese academic and reportedly an informal aide to then President Hu Jintao -- argued: ‘Democracy is the best political system for humankind.’ According to Yu, democracy is not just an optional extra for a developing nation like China; democratisation is an integral part of modernisation.

Surprisingly, Yu’s views are not on the fringe. Even statements from Chinese leaders reflect his apparent enthusiasm for democracy.

During Hu’s address to the Australian parliament in 2003, he declared that ‘democracy is the common pursuit of mankind.’ In 2007, then Premier Wen Jiabao similarly insisted that ‘a highly developed democracy … [is an] inherent requirement … of the socialist system.’

Evidence is mounting that President Xi Jinping remains dedicated to the one-party state. Yet even he has voiced strong support for democracy, emphasising last month that ‘democracy is not a decoration.’

Surely this should hearten those fighting for Hong Kong’s democratic rights? Not quite.

Beijing’s version of democracy is not the genuine multiparty democracy sought by Occupy Central. In fact, it is not really democracy at all.

What the CCP calls democracy is better understood as a form of republican quasi-democracy.

In essence, republican government amounts to popular sovereignty; the head of state represents the people instead of the people being the subjects of the head of state.

In classical Chinese thought, this republican view of the relationship between citizens and the state entailed that the primary role of government was to serve the interests of the people.

As the ancient Confucian scholar Mencius argued: ‘The people are of supreme importance; the altars of the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler.’

If for no other reason than to keep a lid on social unrest and thereby ensure its long-term political survival, the CCP accepts this basic republican principle.

Recent reforms like the anti-corruption drive, more stringent environmental protections, and expanded property rights for farmers are all aimed at ensuring that government policies keep the people generally content -- and as a result, keep the CCP in power.

Nevertheless, Beijing remains avowedly opposed to robust multiparty democracy. Indeed, in Xi’s recently enunciated vision of top-down ‘consultative democracy,’ there is no alternative to the monolithic power of the CCP.

Fang Ning, an influential Chinese thinker and co-author of the government’s 2005 white paper on democracy, uses a culinary metaphor to distil this CCP-sanctioned conception of democracy-lite: ‘With Chinese democracy, we always have the same chef -- the Communist Party -- but we will increasingly get to choose which dishes he cooks.’

What does this mean for Hong Kong and its burgeoning democratic aspirations?

The short-term view from Beijing is grim. In 2017, Hong Kongers may well be voting in a one-person, one-vote election, but their choices will be preapproved by Beijing.

In other words, the CCP will happily give Hong Kong democratic institutions like universal suffrage, but Beijing will ensure that these institutions only operate in a quasi-democratic manner.

The long-term outlook for China’s political evolution is, however, more encouraging.

Singapore’s transition from third world to first under the stewardship of strongman Lee Kuan Yew is widely admired among Chinese leaders.

With Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) dominating the city-state for more than 50 years, Singapore is still only ‘partly free’ according to Freedom House. But there are tentative signs of change: In the 2011 parliamentary elections, PAP faced the highest number of opposition candidates since Singapore’s independence.

In the wake of Xi’s recent liberal reforms -- greater scrutiny of state-owned enterprises, scrapping re-education through labour, and diluting the one-child policy -- China’s system of managed quasi-democracy increasingly resembles Singapore’s enlightened authoritarianism.

For Hong Kong and China’s sake, we can only hope that in time Beijing also emulates Singapore’s cautious embrace of genuine electoral democracy.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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