China’s State Council Information Office on December 4 released its latest White Paper titled China: Democracy That Works, providing an in-depth picture of the workings of China’s unique consultative and governance system or what is now known as China’s “whole-process people’s democracy.” The publication was released just a week prior to U.S. President Joe Biden putting on his self-styled Summit for Democracy, in which many of those “Western democracies” which have totally bungled the COVID-19 pandemic, would acclaim the “superiority” of their system over that of China and some other countries.
The great irony of choosing this particular moment in history to tout the merits of the “Western democratic system” is that in most of these countries, a large part of the population are totally dissatisfied with the way their government has been operating. Were these countries to come together and carry out a self-examination, the question they would end up asking would be, “How have we failed our people and how do we regain their confidence?” But to claim their system as a “model” to be followed is well-nigh ridiculous, particularly regarding China.
In fact, to answer that question arising from self-examination, one could look to China for some answers. China does have a system of democracy and one which has proven quite successful if we are to judge from how effectively China dealt with COVID-19 or how China accomplished the unthinkable in a country of 1.4 billion people with the elimination of absolute poverty.
A local farmer is sorting out chillis at a processing plant in Baishi Town, Qianjiang District, Chongqing Municipality on August 9, 2021. Chilli processing has become an important industry in boosting local rural economy.
The Chinese system of democracy works differently with the governing Communist Party of China (CPC) setting the direction, which is determined by the needs of the people. To meet the people’s needs has been the guiding purpose of the CPC and the sworn commitment of each of its members. Other parties have a consultative role — their advice is not only heeded but in fact solicited by the governing Party. Throughout the year there are ongoing discussions at all levels in which questions or proposals are raised by ordinary citizens with their representatives. And with the aid of the Internet, these discussions occur even more frequently and rapidly than earlier. Important issues which are raised can then be taken up at the local peoples’ congresses for further deliberation. Many may even be worked into new legislative proposals. In this system, ordinary citizens do have the access to and are able to be involved in the political process all year round and not just during election periods, as is the case in the Western system of democracy.
But the proof of whether a particular system is good or bad can only be determined by the impact it has on the welfare of the population, because maintaining the people’s welfare or livelihood is supposed to be the core purpose of a government. If we were to launch such a comparison, we would have to ask some key questions: “During the latest COVID-19 outbreak, how well did governments do in protecting their citizens?” or, “Have you reduced the gap between rich and poor?” And given that every country has a share in the responsibility for the world around them, another pertinent question is “How have you helped your neighbor with tackling COVID-19, or bringing their people out of poverty?” Of course, none of the “Western democracies” would attempt to make such comparisons with the People’s Republic of China as they would come out looking worse off.
The issue that is being posed at the Summit for Democracy has little to do with democracy or governance, but more to do with raw power. The failure of governance in the United States over the last few decades has led to a hollowing out of the U.S. economy which still looks good on paper (i.e. on Wall Street), but very bad in terms of the physical economy. At the same time, China, which was determined to bring its large population out of poverty, embarked on a fast track of developing its economy, with incomparable success, even outpacing the United States in several key areas of technology. Finding itself at something of a loss in this respect, the United States under Trump and Biden, has declared a “rivalry” with China and began doing everything to slow China down in the area of trade and technology.
Even those remarkable feats of humanitarian endeavors undertaken by China, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the greatest development project in the world, have been targeted by the Biden administration, with idle promises of following up with a better program sometime in the far future.
This narrow-minded policy based on the chauvinistic view that only the West, or, maybe even the more limited, Anglo-American portion of it, has a right to make laws governing the world is a total anachronism in today’s world. In fact, those “laws” which had been predominant until the recent years, ended up leading to the 2008 world financial crisis, a financial blowout from which the world has yet to recover. With the initiation of the Belt and Road Initiative by China, the world entered a new trajectory out of poverty and out of underdevelopment. If we are to continue in that direction, and the fate of humanity really depends upon it, the United States – and the West – must come to a modus vivendi with the People’s Republic of China despite the differences in respective systems. Only if the major powers unite around a global policy that is in the people’s interest can the world emerge from an era of conflict that still involves nuclear powers. Any attempt to try to assert a single model of governance in such a diversified world, as our own is doomed to failure, will only lead to conflict, with dramatic unintended consequences for all concerned parties.
WILLIAM JONES is a Washington policy analyst and a non-resident fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies under Renmin University of China.