Whole-process people's democracy: How consultative conferences work

I'm Robert Lawrence Kuhn and here's what I'm watching: How the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the CPPCC, works as an essential advisory body at each level of China's political system and thus reflects China's commitment to enhance its form of democracy, which China calls "Whole-Process People's Democracy."

The CPPCC is not a body of state power at the national level nor of government power at the local level; it is rather a platform on which all sectors of society participate in state and local affairs; this includes political parties, organizations, ethnic groups, and professional fields (such as science, education, healthcare, the military, and culture). In practice, CPPCC members serve as advisers for the government and legislative and judicial organs, and offer proposals on political, social and technical issues — all under Party leadership at each level, of course.

The CPPCC reflects distinctive features of China's political system, which they call "China's socialist democracy." Members work through plenary sessions, standing committees, special committees, and they conduct inspections and field surveys, make proposals, and file reports on a regular basis.

CPPCC members are experts and leaders in their specialized fields, with professional backgrounds and long-term experience. For example, in science and technology, CPPCC members are top scientists and science administrators. Their research and reports, after higher-level evaluation, are sent as official CPPCC communications to the heads of relevant bodies or authorities. Thus, the CPPCC can transform expert opinion into actionable proposals.

The CPPCC system is under-appreciated in the West and sometimes even in China. Because it has no de jure legislative power and can only "consult" or "advise," the CPPCC may seem without power. But this is not so. Because many CPPCC members are leaders in their fields, and when they offer advice, government officials had better pay attention and take it seriously. Woe unto those who do not! Officials are sandwiched, as it were, between China's leaders above and the public below, both of whom are watching to see how officials respond to CPPCC advice.

The CPPCC has more than 3,200 organizations at four administrative levels: national, provincial, municipal, and county, with more than 600,000 CPPCC members. The CPPCC holds briefing sessions, reflecting, they say, both the public's right to know and the public's responsibility to oversee.

As originally conceived, the CPPCC has two overarching functions: unity and democracy, the former bringing together all parties, groups, ethnicities, and sectors. Officials speak of the CPPCC's "fine tradition of 'unity-criticism-unity'." While unity is usually a high good, in today's complex society, unity too soon can suppress democracy by stifling or squeezing off differing views. The whole point of consultative democracy is to present and assess differing views — immediate unity would make consultation redundant.

China insists on "consolidating the common ideological and political foundation" — in essence the leadership of the CPC, the Party — while "giving full play to democracy and tolerating differences." Credit the CPPCC for optimizing various kinds of diversity, including diverse views on policies — the operative phrase being "seeking common ground while reserving differences." In complex society, however, the line separating unity and democracy can be fuzzy.

As the CPPCC facilitates China's developing democracy, and as Chinese society becomes more complex, perhaps a little less initial unity and a little more tolerated diversity may be needed.

I'm keeping watch. I'm Robert Lawrence Kuhn.


Script: Robert Lawrence Kuhn

Editors: Yang Yutong, Qi Haiming, Duan Jiaxin

Designer: Qi Haiming

Producer: Wang Ying

Chief editor: Ren Yan

Supervisors: Ge Jing, Adam Zhu

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