Leading China: China's democracy and rule of law

What China calls its "Whole-Process People's Democracy" is a mysterious phrase to Westerners, who assume that China's political system, which has neither multiple parties nor general elections, can be in no way democratic.

Yet, China's great rejuvenation uses six aspirational adjectives, one of which is "democratic.”

The Party's call is to expand the orderly political participation of the people, strengthen the protection of human rights and the rule of law, and ensure that the people enjoy extensive rights and freedoms in accordance with the law – all still under the leadership of the Party, of course.

Democracy in the Party-led system involves absorbing public opinion via feedback mechanisms, such as polling to discern what people think, for example about proposed new policies – a process that the Party calls "pooling people's wisdom.”So, even though there are no elections in the Western sense, there is engagement with different constituencies. 

Essential for enhancing Whole-Process People's Democracy is improving the people's congress system, exercising their power of oversight. The work reports of Party leadership at Party congresses every five years, and the work reports of the government at the National People's Congress every year, are drafted by diverse teams and reflect a great deal of input from relevant officials, experts and constituencies.

Uniquely important in developing deliberative and consultative democracy is the role of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference; even though the CPPCC has no formal power, it has the growing social powers of expertise, influence and public pressure.

My friends in China ask, why does the world misunderstand the Party? The problem, I argue, is partly semantics – because the English word "party" connotes, in democratic political systems, a political party that competes in free and open multi-party elections, such that when a ruling party does not compete in free and open multi-party elections, that political system is deemed not democratic.

This portrait mispaints the Chinese system, which is founded on a different principle, where the Party is the ruling organization, not a competing political party – it is a dedicated elite from all sectors of society, consisting of less than 7 percent of the population but tasked to represent 100 percent of the population.

Thus, the Party, as the ruling organization, is not the equivalent of a ruling political party in Western systems, where political parties represent only a subset of voters and are time-bounded by election cycles. For this reason, the Chinese Party, the CPC, has a higher and broader obligation to enhance the living standards and personal well-being of all Chinese citizens. This includes reforms, rule of law, transparency in government, public participation in governance, increasing democracy, various freedoms, and human rights. These are challenges.

Looking ahead, given that democracy is aspirational as part of China's mid-century goals, what kinds of system improvements need be made? In particular, what is the relationship between democracy and rule of law?

CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping calls for governance by law, ruling by law and administering by law. He stresses systematic thinking, embedding rule of law in the overall development of the country – a country, government society under the rule of law. He emphasizes: "Comprehensive rule of law is a systematic project. We must plan as a whole, and pay more attention to systematic coordination, integrity, and synergy.”

Xi Jinping Thought on the Rule of Law seeks to form a complete system of laws and regulations, which requires coherent legislation, strict law enforcement, impartial justice, and law-abiding by the whole populace. Legal issues are handled in a comprehensive manner rather than as independent issues, systematically rather than scattered, connected rather than isolated.

The Party's leadership of the rule of law stresses adherence to the people-centered approach. The Party states that respecting and protecting human rights – economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights – improve people's well-being and is a fundamental purpose of comprehensively governing the country according to law. China’s encyclopedic Civil Code is said to embody the people-centered legislative principle and written around the people's rights. It is designed to improve social fairness and justice as the primary value in formulating every law and trying every case. The goal is to achieve equal rights, equal opportunities, equal rules.

Next, new legislation must address key areas: national security, scientific and technological innovation, public health, bio-security, ecological civilization, risk prevention, and the fields of digital economy, Internet finance, artificial intelligence, big data, cloud computing, and personal privacy.

Xi Jinping Thought on the Rule of Law is called a milestone, because although systems of laws have existed throughout China's long history of ruling systems, they were always subject to intervention by ruling elites. This enabled local officials to influence judicial decisions for their personal gain or nefarious purposes. Initiatives in the past have sought to strengthen China's laws, but this time, under President Xi, seems different. One need only watch the parade of disgraced officials being named, shamed, detained and jailed. More systemically, judicial reform has set the supremacy of the law over administrative organs. To me, one of the under-appreciated reforms in advancing the rule of law was transferring the administration of the local court system from the local Party to the provincial level, which prevents city and county officials from interfering in legal proceedings.  

There is a puzzle. Strengthening the rule of law is said not to weaken the rule of the Party. How can this be? In the past, many local officials simply ignored the law, as if not being subject to law was a privilege of their positions. Some took bribes to subvert law enforcement and judicial processes for personal gain. Some were just ignorant. However, President Xi has now made it clear that all party officials must abide by the law. 

People-centered, comprehensive, systematic, fair, just and equal, these six words summarize aspirations of Xi Jinping Thought on the Rule of Law.

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