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Intra-party Democracy in China: The Saving Grace for Chinese Democratic Aspirations?

By Sunidhi Agrahari

Cheng Li propounds that “Democracy is a process rather than an event”. He takes his readers through a course of arguments, critically analysing the myriads of views and debates, of several scholars on Intra-party democracy, to try and convince his readers that intra-party democracy “provides for an incremental and manageable experiment of a Chinese-style democracy”. Intra-party democracy was adopted by the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”), however, this article puts the sincerity of their actions under strict scrutiny, since it seems to be incongruent with the theory of ‘organisational emperorship’, a system where an organisation (like the CCP) rules a state like an emperor. Further, I attempt to analyse the motives of the CCP for adopting intra-party democracy. By doing so, I hope to answer the dilemma of whether a country’s desire to be a one-party state or a democratic state can be mutually non-exclusive and if the key for the co-existence of the two natures is in fact, intra-party democracy? Furthermore, I venture to argue that intra-party democracy is the end of China’s democratic aspirations rather than the means of fulfilling them, unlike what Yu Keping, deputy director of the Compilation and Translation Bureau of the Central Committee of the CCP and a professor at Peking University, believes.

Why did the CCP embrace intra-party democracy? 

Li explains that the adoption of intra-party democracy was not a ‘choice’ for the CCP. After the global wave of democracy that began in the 1970s, a one-party system has become an exception to the rule of a multi-party system in the world. China, as an emerging global power, could not risk being clubbed with the other one-party states such as North Korea and Cuba. Ever since the of Chinese economic reform in 1978, it has been difficult for the state to resist this trend of democratisation. Moreover, even though China did achieve immense and rapid economic growth, it faced various other issues like income inequality, shortages of natural resources, environmental degradation, and many others. The Chinese political system at that time, came face to face with its shortcomings in dealing with these convoluted issues, which led to rising political tensions. Changing socioeconomic and political environment demanded a congruent change in the political system to make it more adept, for efficiency. Moreover, after the Mao era, the CCP went through a leadership transition, from an over-concentration of power in the party leaders to institutionalisation of elite politics. 

The party had to transform its way of governance to meet the new demands presented by new circumstances in the world and the country, and the new reality in the Party. To accommodate solutions for all these problems, China joined the trend of democracy. However, the ideals of a democratic state were heavily influenced by the West where a multiparty political system, bicameralism, and separation of powers are prescribed as the inherent characteristics of a democracy. This posed a challenge to the CCP leaders as they were reluctant to relinquish control and refused to tolerate opposition parties. Since they were not going to forfeit the one-party system, they were befallen with a task of finding an alternative to the ‘westernised’ electoral or liberal democracy. Dingping Guo advances that to this extent, the CCP was nudged into embracing the intra-party democracy which was perceived to lay grounds for combining two seemingly conflicting goals of democratization and CCP leadership and may consequently lead to a new, Chinese model of democracy.

Democracy within the CCP:  a sham?

Zheng Yongnian tackles how the “political elite in China have employed cultural elements in seeking the domination of the Party over the state and society, and how the ruling political party has been transformed into an organisational emperor to serve their goals”. To do so, he uses the theories of ‘new institutionalism’ and ‘new-Marxism’. I will be focusing on the former to prove that a one-party political system in China cannot exist if the state desires to be democratic. These two natures of a state are mutually non-exclusive. 

Yongnian proposes that new institutionalism explains how culture and institutions shape the identity, the interests, and the policies of a political party and then how the culture is reproduced by the party. This theory has made great efforts to integrate cultural and institutional analysis. Yongnian defines culture as a body of norms. It is the culture of a place that defines the norms, values, rules, and models that the people must live by. Collectively, this does not only affect how an organisation in that culture would behave, but how it also identifies itself, and how a person with a distinct identity should behave in respect to the other actors of the state. This is what the CCP banks on. 

For centuries now, China has been unified under one emperor. Unlike India which was a country encompassing small separate states ruled by their own separate rulers, China has forever been one large state ruled solely by a single emperor. Yongnian explains how initially these emperors were individuals who were regarded as the only legitimate ruler by the society. The emperorship over the years was then institutionalised, so much so that even after the fall of the dynastic China, the role of an emperor was passed on. China has gone from being ruled by an individual to being ruled by an organisation. This system has been referred to as organisational emperorship by Yongnian. Currently, it is the CCP that identifies itself as the emperor and the identity of them being the only ruling party  has been accepted by the society. On one hand, the dynastic emperors found their legitimacy from traditional sources and hierarchy, while on the other, the CCP rationalised its legitimacy through institutionalism.

 However, this poses the question of how this party, irrespective of its policies and ideals, can claim to be leading China towards democracy when clearly it is still enjoying hegemonic power. Even if the Party does have few characteristics of democracy within itself, are they enough for them to be considered a substitute for western democracy? Furthermore, how is it fair for the members of the Party to enjoy democracy when the rest of the public is governed authoritatively? The answers to all these are founded on one glaring principle, an emperorship and a democracy cannot co-exist in a state.  Since the principles of new institutionalism suggest that this emperorship will be reproduced, even if it is adjusted to the current socio-economic environment, democracy is still a far-off dream for China.

Is Intra-party democracy the saving grace for China?

It is easy for the society to rationalise the hegemonic institution of an organised emperorship by suggesting their lack of choice and lack of adequate opposition. However, the root cause of this absence of an opposition can be traced back to the institution of emperorship itself. 

Yongnian sets forth that due to the institution and cyclic reproduction of emperorship, where power-sharing has never been allowed, the culture in China is now plagued by the institutionalised and hegemonic attitude of ‘winner takes it all’. Currently, this is imbibed in the CCP, and new institutionalism explains how this culture-institution environment is shaping the party’s interests. Further, Yongnian postulates that the foremost interest of the CCP is to maintain its domination over the state and society and to keep on reproducing and reconstructing such domination in accordance with changing socio-economic environments. 

I believe that intra-party democracy is just another tool the CCP is using to reproduce its emperorship in congruence with the demands of the current socio-economic times. For thinking that a party so obsessed with domination and power will ever allow the growth of a faction, inside or outside the Party, that could keep it ‘checked and balanced’, would be fallacious. Li wrote that “as long as China’s political, economic, and cultural elites perceive democracy to be something that will undermine rather than enhance their interests, there will be no strong consensus for [democracy] in China”.

In furtherance to the expansion of their domination, Yongnian, also points at how even within the party, the behaviour of its members is regulated through culture and institutions. He states that it is these regulations that gives CCP leaders the legitimate authority to punish those who disrespect the Party and its leaders in formal politics, including disobeying an order. 

In my opinion, such intrinsic control of an individual’s behaviour is not characteristic of a democracy. If members cannot voice their opinion formally and must obey all orders, they are reduced to nothing but an accessory in the Party. Scholars argue that ideological diversity and competition need not come from an outside party but can be provided for from within the party itself. However, if members of the party are given no space to be individuals, what diversity will they bring to the plate? 

Lastly, as per Yongnian, new institutionalism also purports that the identity and interests influence CCP’s policymaking and implementation, which in turn affect cultural and institutional environments. This means that the culture-institution environment that allows CCP to identify itself as an emperor, also, enables it to make policies in furtherance to its interests, which in turn influences the culture and institution, allowing the party to choke hold its domination in the society. With a system like this, embracing intra-party democracy would merely be a dent in an autocratic pillow and I have yet to find an argument that would convince me otherwise.

Author’s Remarks

Li advocates that intra-party is an incremental move towards democracy, and that with a view of the history in mind, gradual changes would be more viable than a radical shift to a ‘westernised’ democracy. it is unfortunate that past failures of reform movements have made the people of China so cautious that the stubborn power mongers enjoy unfettered rule of the country. 

China does not need an oligarchy in the garbs of a democracy, it does not need incremental steps towards democracy that are meted out on the terms of a selected few, it does need intra-party democracy in a party that is accountable to no one save itself. What China needs, is a revolution. A revolution that could shake the mammoth organisation of the CCP and could give a chance to those that want to break free from the party but form their own party that reflect their own beliefs; a revolution that would change the face of the Chinese constitution to institutionalise policies such as independent judiciary, bicameralism, multi-party system and party constitutions reflecting the same; a revolution that would institutionalise democracy.

Intra-party democracy maybe a step forward, however, I believe that if the cultural-institutional environment, that allows the existence of an authoritarian government, is not reformed, intraparty democracy may just as well be an end to the China’s democratic aspirations rather than its intended role as a means of fulfilling them.

Sunidhi Agrahari is a Penultimate year law student at Jindal Global Law School (O.P. Jindal Global University.

Image credits – https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/02/xi-jinping-chinese-communist-party-anti-us-bloc/

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