Holding onto the heart of the people: Essence of democracy
Lu Xia
Chinese national flags. /CFP

Chinese national flags. /CFP

Editor's note: Xia Lu is an associate professor at the School of Marxism Studies and a research fellow at the National Academy of Development and Strategies, Renmin University of China. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Over two years ago, after the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the 4th plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) ratified a resolution, focusing on the categorization of almost all the systems and institutions that have been created since 1949 in wide-ranging aspects: economic, social, political and ideological.

Although whole-process people's democracy as a concept has only recently been coined, the practice has long been reflected in the process of materializing and consolidating the people's power under the leadership of the CPC. In the early 1930s, when the Chinese Soviet Republic, the first national regime founded by the CPC, was established, democratic elections were established as one of the important principles of the new regime. The word "soviet" itself literally refers to "congress" or "assembly" in Russian, so democratic elections are the meaning of the soviet political system and the concrete form of participation of the workers and peasants in the management of the state.

After arriving in a remote northwestern area, the CPC relocated the regime to the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region. But even during the war resisting Japanese invasions, the practice of democratic politics led by the CPC never stopped its advance.

It is precisely because of the adoption of a people-centered participatory pattern that people in border areas showed great enthusiasm for political participation, and thus election became a conscious action. The turnout rate can be taken as an indicator. In the first elections in border region, the turnout rate was above 80 percent, and in some places it was higher, such as Panlong District in Yan'an, where almost all voters voted. In modern societies, people tend to view elections as a criterion for democracy, and low turnout rate is viewed by scholars as a signal of declining democracy. Thus, how could one still argue that a certain country is the prototype of democracy yet its own people are not willing to turn out to vote?

In the early stage of the PRC, proletarian democracy was established with the triumph of the socialist revolution and it persisted throughout the period of transition from new-democratic (1949-1956) to socialism (1956 to present). With the achievements in the building of socialism, proletarian democracy evolved into socialist democracy of the whole people, or whole-process people's democracy.

Distinctive features of socialist democracy of the whole people are, first, that it is enjoyed by all society's strata. Secondly, it implements the democratic ideals, namely the rule by the people, and the equality and freedom of the individual. Thirdly, on the basis of the rising living standards and cultural level of the population, democracy of the whole people creates the conditions for the participation of all citizens in fruitful production activity and in the administration of society's affairs, and for the steady development of the individual's initiative and abilities.

The difficulties of promoting democracy stem from society's material potentialities, the level of the people's consciousness and their knowledge of politics, from the fact that a socialist society develops neither in hothouse conditions, nor in isolation from a world full of uncertainty and changes. To perfect socialist democracy it is necessary to eradicate bureaucratic regimentation and formalism – everything that throttles and erodes the initiatives of the people and fetters creative thought and work.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era ensures a significant extension of the rights and freedoms of citizens. The Constitution of the PRC codifies and protects the basic rights of Chinese people and clearly defines the systems of social, economic, political, and juridical guarantees of each of the rights and freedoms. Among the key socio-economic and political rights of Chinese people enshrined in the Constitution is the right to participate in administering affairs of state and society. Also a constitutional norm is the right of everyone to submit to state agencies and institutions suggestions on ways of improving their operation and to criticize shortcomings in their work. All state and public organizations, as well as cadres and officials working there, shall respect these above-mentioned rights.

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. /CFP

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. /CFP

The extension of juridical guarantees is expressed also in the people's right to judicial protection against encroachments on their honor and dignity, life and health, personal freedom, and property. The important norms include people's right to submit complaints against irregular actions by some cadres and officials, and these complaints must be examined in accordance with the procedure and time-limit established by law; and people's right to appeal against inappropriate actions by some cadres and officials that contravene the law and infringe on people's rights.

Chinese people also enjoy the right to associate in public organizations that contribute to the development of their political activity and initiative, and to the satisfaction of their diverse interests. These rights and freedoms are granted to Chinese people in accordance with the interests of the people and with the aim of reinforcing and developing the socialist system.

The ideological debate and political struggle that have unfolded in recent years over the question of human rights have brought into light two fundamentally different attitudes: the concrete and tangible one promoted by China versus the abstract and insubstantial one advocated by the West. The former attitude embodies a genuinely democratic approach, underlying which is a concern for the rights of all people. Chinese democracy accentuates, above all, the tangible social rights of the individual, such as the right to work, rest and leisure, education and socio-economic freedoms, notably freedom from exploitation of man by man. Meanwhile the latter attitude focuses on hypocritical laudation of freedom of opinion, speech and the press despite the fact that all the main media guaranteeing these freedoms – newspapers, TV stations, websites and newly emerging social networking platforms – are controlled by monopoly capital.

A recent study conducted at two top universities suggests that the concept of democracy in America might have become more of a fable than a fact. American scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page seek to respond the question: ''Who really rules (in America)?", challenging some of the most fundamental ideas that people hold about the U.S. government. After systematically reviewing key variables for over 1,779 policy issues, the two scholars have found that the impact of the ordinary citizen is practically negligible.

In some cases, people can have their say in policy; yet, unfortunately, the researchers found that benefits for the majority are the exception, not the rule. What may even comes as a surprise is that scholars have found business groups generally desire policies that hurt the majority of the populace. If one still considers a government where policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent people a democratic one, then one might want to revisit the concept and essence of democracy and drop the illusion and return to reality. After all, democracy is supposed to be the rule of the people.

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