KEY CONCEPT | What is whole-process people's democracy?
By Josef Gregory Mahoney  ·  2022-10-21  ·   Source: NO.43 OCTOBER 27, 2022
Resident representatives meet on community affairs in Yonglian Village of Zhangjiagang City, Jiangsu Province, on June 19, 2020 (XINHUA)

The term "whole-process democracy," or as it's more fully expressed in Chinese, "whole-process people's democracy," is a relatively new expression finding increasing currency in contemporary Chinese political discourse to describe the kind of democracy that's been developed and presently works in China.

In general terms, whole-process democracy is described as a people- and results-oriented approach for ensuring national rejuvenation and common prosperity. It combines both direct and indirect election with complementary forms of systemic discipline to ensure cleaner and more effective governance.

In fact, it pools a wide range of instrumental practices like the rule of law, political consultations, increasingly open, digital governance and an increasingly robust system for public commentary and feedback. Altogether, these efforts and others are combined to achieve the intrinsic values of democracy, including bringing development and opportunities for growth to the masses while strengthening access to quality healthcare, education and security.

In terms of outcomes, one can point to key achievements like establishing a xiaokang, or moderately prosperous, society in 2021, having lifted hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty, having a population of more than 400 million middle-income earners with improving standards of living and economic freedom and having executed new programs to bring more development and equity to those people and regions that still need them. It places high emphasis on green development, with China now a global leader in this area. But perhaps more importantly, it has seen China clean up its cities, waterways and rural places that were once blighted with pollution. In all of these ways one can see how whole-process democracy responds to what the people want and need.

Consequently, as key state leaders attest, whole-process democracy has guided the Chinese people into a new era, one encountering "changes unseen in a century," as China has now emerged as a strong and wealthy nation not only capable of safeguarding its sovereignty from those who seek to imperil it, but also capable of serving the greater global good through win-win development schemes, especially in long-neglected areas of the Global South, while promoting democracy internationally through true multilateralism.

The theory

President Xi Jinping has described whole-process democracy as consisting of four paired elements working in tandem: process-oriented democracy and achievement-oriented democracy; procedural democracy and substantive democracy; direct democracy and indirect democracy; and people's democracy and the will of the state.

The first pair emphasizes involving the masses in the processes that culminate in the various outcomes the masses seek, including national development, poverty alleviation, access to healthcare and education, improved sovereignty and security, and so on. The second describes the organizational aspects, the rule of law and institutionalization that make good governance and common prosperity possible. The third points to the instrumental practices of direct elections at the grassroots level, combined with the indirect democracy of successively higher forms of representation. The fourth encapsulates the integration of people's aspirations with the state will, through diverse, open and well-organized democratic channels.

Real vs. pseudo democracy

In his report to the 20th Communist Party of China (CPC) National Congress on behalf of the 19th CPC Central Committee, Xi, also General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, once again described whole-process people's democracy as a system that ensures the people run the country. He also reiterated conceptual links between whole-process democracy and the unique characteristics associated with China's socialist development. Like previous Chinese leaders, he described China as a socialist country of people's democratic dictatorship under the leadership of the working class based on an alliance of workers and farmers. Therefore, he asserted, "All power of the state in China belongs to the people."

"People's democracy is the lifeblood of socialism and it is integral to our efforts to build a modern socialist country in all respects," Xi said. He then made a very bold, normative claim, or at least one that has been interpreted thusly: "Whole-process people's democracy is the defining feature of socialist democracy; it is democracy in its broadest, most genuine and most effective form."

In other words, Xi seemed to assert, contrary to critics, that whole-process democracy is actually a superior form of democracy. It may well be that he means this solely in a Chinese context, i.e., that it's a superior form for China, but strictly speaking, it's reasonable to suggest his implication is broader, especially when we consider growing Chinese criticism of other forms of democracy, disapprovals that argue that some Western democracies, including the United States, have increasingly demonstrated an incapacity for putting people first, have failed to ensure or advance significantly basic human rights at home and instead become entrenched in systemic chokepoints, and have been unable to move past historic—if not ontological—foundations of oppression and exploitation, both at home and abroad. In short, his implication is that China's whole-process democracy, described previously in an official white paper as "democracy that works," is real democracy.

In his role as General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee at the Party congress, it's not strange to hear Xi make politically bold statements with even bolder implications. It's true that China's relatively unique political system sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish between different roles—that what one says at a Party congress might be more emphatic and undiplomatic than what one says as the president—but it may well be that diplomatic subtlety is now largely irrelevant given the complete lack of the same from Western leaders, especially those who frequently demonize China's political system. It's reasonable to expect him to take an assertive position in response, and all the more so given the fact that one of the hallmarks of the new era is greater national confidence and assertiveness vis-à-vis inequitable international systems and U.S. hegemony and anti-China containment strategies especially. However, it is also the case that Xi himself has repeatedly expressed the unity of the people, the nation, the government and the Party, contrary to older forms of expression that indicated clearer categories and delineations.

To be sure, Xi, in his report, also provided a long checklist of what the Party must do to strengthen people's democracy and ensure that whole-process democracy can reach and sustain its full democratic potential. Nevertheless, in both tone and tenor, but likewise in the substance of his remarks, rarely have we seen a modern Chinese leader so confident in the country, its people, its political system and himself. 

The author is a professor of politics and international relations at East China Normal University and a senior research fellow with the Institute for the Development of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics at Southeast University

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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