Three deputies answer questions during the fifth session of the 13th National People's Congress in Beijing on March 8 (XINHUA)
In his address on July 1, 2021 to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, mentioned and elaborated on what he terms China’s “whole-process people’s democracy.”
As the CPC has demonstrated through practice, democracy is not a preserve of Western countries. In fact, the Chinese form of democracy - the whole-process people’s democracy - gives full expression to governance, not exclusively dominated by an elite and wealthy class as is the case with the U.S. which has morphed into becoming a system serving narrow interests of lobby groups, corporate interests and the so-called military-industrial complex.
Chinese democracy is markedly different from that of Western countries. Xi defines Chinese whole-process people’s democracy as orientated to “safeguard social fairness and justice and resolve the imbalances and inadequacies in development and the most pressing difficulties and problems that are of great concern to the people.”
What does this mean and how has it been applied and monitored regularly in China? How does it fit in China’s history, demography, and political and economic landscape? Which experiences can be learned for South Africa as it battles to make its constitutional democracy deliver for the majority of its people, as China has achieved in unparalleled quantities, in terms of the Human Development Index and Sustainable Development Goals?
Above all, whole-process people’s democracy is associated with good governance, that is, effective and efficient service delivery of common goods. Judged on this alone, the CPC has achieved this feat of delivering for its citizens and diverse communities the common goods - in terms of basic and advanced education, health care, infrastructure, employment, and safety. The attainment of these public goods, for the majority of the population, has been the unambiguous focus of the Chinese Government.
An outstanding example of Chinese whole-process people’s democracy is the inclusion of people themselves in the collective decision-making process through people’s congresses of various levels. In addition, public opinions and inputs are solicited on draft laws so that there is meaningful public participation and democratic decision-making. China is uncompromising on the principle that public leaders must serve and prioritize national interests above selfish individual rights. The very function of Chinese state institutions is to be accountable and responsive, at all levels, to the citizens’ needs and concerns. Failure to do so is not tolerated and there is simply no impunity for lack of effective service delivery or perpetration of corruption and maladministration.
Moreover, the word “governance”, using a definition from the 2015 World Public Sector Report issued by the United Nations, “refers to steering. Steering, for example a ship, is not only a matter of keeping the ship afloat and in a forward, backward or sideways motion.” Most importantly, “it requires knowledge of the direction and ensuring that the ship is constantly on course in that direction.” Ensuring that the ship is on course has enabled the CPC to deliver the historic achievements for its citizens and communities that are the envy of the entire world. This is not surprising since the CPC, most prominently since 1978 and in the current trajectory under President Xi, understood the connection among political development, economic reform and social stability.
Two medical workers cheer for a 4-year-old patient who just went through a treatment in Zaozhuang, Shandong Province on January 1 (XINHUA)
Guided by pragmatism
This whole-process people’s democracy did not emerge from a vacuum. It has been a product of studying what works in China. Pragmatism instead of ideological fundamentalism has been the guiding framework throughout since it emphasizes formulating and implementing policies and programs through trial-and-error.
In the process, this has enabled the CPC to select, not holus-bolus, from other countries and their systems what works for China. This selection has been cognizant of the objective material conditions in China. Hence the role of the market economy was not left to its own devise of pure profit-seeking, but required state facilitation to balance the wealth distribution and reduce the income inequalities it inevitably produces.
The same is true when it comes to democracy. It has been reconfigured to respond directly to and be applicable to the structural circumstances of China. Unlike in other countries where the will of the people matters only during the electoral periods, in China, the people’s interests reign supreme throughout the terms of office of public officials.
The whole-process people’s democracy is supposed to serve common interests and deliver on tangible societal benefits. The whole-process people’s democracy has enabled China to build the world’s largest social security system and a basic medical insurance coverage which reaches more than 95 percent of the country’s population. This is in addition to the popularly known unprecedented accomplishment of lifting 770 million Chinese citizens from absolute poverty. In the process, the CPC has reached, 10 years ahead of schedule, the Sustainable Development Goals target to “end poverty in all its forms.”
As the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, China has shown the way with its whole-process people’s democracy just how the pandemic, in all its variants, can be handled, how to maintain economic growth, and serve the basic socio-economic needs of all people. As such, Chinese democracy deserves acknowledgement for delivering on good governance that advances basic service delivery.
It is not a coincidence that President Xi states, “Democracy is not an ornament to be used for decoration; it is to be used to solve the problems people want to solve.” It is important to remember that, between 2016 and 2020, the CPC created an estimated 60 million decent jobs which is an obvious sign of Chinese democracy in action to link attainment of socio-economic rights to delivery of social cohesion and nation-building. The declaration by President Xi of China being a moderately prosperous society is related to the practice of the whole-process people’s democracy.
Lessons for South Africa
What are the experiences, for South Africa, that can be gleaned from China’s whole-process people’s democracy? Firstly, executive and bureaucracy play key a role in making democracy meaningful and further social development. When leaders simply focus on policy proclamation without emphasizing implementation, it poses risks to the sustainability of the democratic project and nation-building program.
Secondly, the prosecution of those found to be implicated in acts of corruption and maladministration by relevant law enforcement agencies should be non-negotiable.
Thirdly, political systems should fit the material conditions of a country. It is not helpful to proclaim proudly that our constitutional democracy is the most “progressive” in the world when the basic needs of people are not met. Lack of effective service delivery is the reason there are so many public protests in South Africa. As a Chinese saying goes, “A man of wisdom adapts to changes; a man of knowledge acts by circumstances.”
The author is a Sinologist and founder of Sele Encounters