Whole-process people’s democracy differs from liberal democracy

Chinese Social Sciences Today

Village leaders convene a consultative meeting on improving rural hygiene at Baiduo Village, Shibing County, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province. Photo: CFP 

Democracy meaning “the rule of the people” is, along with other common values of humanity such as peace, development, equity, justice and freedom, a very abstract concept. The concept of democracy in the ideal sense should include both substantive democracy and procedural democracy. As such it can assume a multiplicity of forms. “The rule of the people” does imply however that “the people” are able to arrive at an agreement about the ends of political, economic, and cultural processes. The ends of such an agreement can only concern the “common good,” “the good of all,” “the happiness of all,” “the well-being and prosperity of all,” or “the ability of all to live lives of decency, self-respect, and social recognition of their contributions no matter how small.” Achievement of these shared goals is the meaning of substantive democracy and justice. The term democracy is also used to refer to procedures such as procedural democracy and justice. Achieving “the common good” does require the existence of a set of effective procedures and forms. If the outcomes correspond in practice with “the common good” and the realization of “common prosperity,” the system of governance can be considered reasonably democratic. 

Weaknesses of liberal democracy

The concept of “liberal democracy” dates from the Western Enlightenment, the emergence of industrial capitalism and struggles to enlarge “democratic rights.” Essentially liberal democracy comprises competitive multi-party representative politics with universal and equal adult suffrage (representative and pluralist), democratic rights (freedom of speech and political association and state-guaranteed equality before the law), and separation of powers (executive, legislative, and judicial) and the rule of law that goes back to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) and Montesquieu’s De L’esprit Des Lois (1748).

Liberal democracy is a political and legal matter. The real basis of power lies in the class character of capitalist societies and capitalist social relations, which liberal democracy guarantees. As the most advanced and powerful countries in the world and the ones that colonized much of the globe, Western countries have claimed that their model of liberal democracy is the only form that democracy can assume, and is a universal global value that all nations and civilizations must accept. This demand serves Western interests, while colonialism, imperialism, and interference in the affairs of other nations are clear violations of democratic principles and the democratic rights of others, as democracy presupposes the sovereign jurisdiction of all nations and the rights of their citizens to rule themselves without external interference.

In any case, liberal democracy suffers from several fundamental weaknesses. The foundations of liberalism include two claims: (1) human beings are not social animals but self-interested individuals; and (2) human beings are incapable of agreement on any definition of the common good. All moral, religious, and philosophical values are as a result confined to private spheres leaving ultimately only liberty or freedom as a universal value. No limits are placed on what any individual can do, other than insofar as they are required to prevent harm or infringement of the same liberty of others. All norms must be deconstructed and eventually swept away in the name of the “rights of man” and the struggle against discriminations.

In our days, however, this political philosophy has led in the direction of progressive atomization, the erosion of social solidarity, and an increase in the vulnerability of individuals isolated from one another. Neoliberalism calls for a global constitution of capital to protect private property rights from being infringed by sovereign states and the establishment of institutions that limit sovereignty. This led to the rise of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.    

“Liberal democracy” also caused Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority.” In our days, the “age of populism” in developed capitalist and transition economies is a reflection of these problems. Populism is a political strategy that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded or even worked against by established elites and political parties and political party convergence. Its rise derives from increasing discontents on the one hand and the inability or unwillingness of governments to recognize and respond to them (related to economic crises of capitalism, institutional decay, and the afore-mentioned erosion of sovereignty and empowerment of unaccountable supra-national entities) on the other. 

Economic globalization causes an explosion of inequality, a reduction in social mobility, and a decline in the real income, job security, and quality of life of ordinary people. Cultural developments that are opposed include waves of immigration of refugees and economic migrants, and the erosion of traditional values relating to differences in religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Associated with them are increasing social and political cleavages between working-class communities and upper-middle liberal and “creative” classes. These cleavages are also reflected in the traditional constituencies of social democratic parties.

In practice in Western countries, corporate power largely drives the domestic and international agendas of the state: private wealth funds political parties and the political classes, and drives state policies, corporate media controls the channels of communication and the messages they transmit, and state functions are outsourced to corporate interests. 

Indeed, a study of 1,779 policy issues found that the “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy, and that instead public policy reflected the preferences of economic elites and organized interest groups.”

China’s people-centered approach 

Against these Western claims one can argue that collective life of necessity requires not just some shared moral values but also a strong sense of common interests, shared projects, and shared aspirations, while the solution of common problems requires a system of governance and a political community at whose center is the principle of collectivism rather than that of individualism. Similarly, the avoidance of the evident deficits of peace, development, and governance in the current international system require the building of a human community with a shared future. This was what China did 10 years ago, which met the needs of our days. 

The human community with a shared future is closely related to China’s current system of democratic governance, which is a process of evolution of the system of socialist democracy and rule of law. The whole-process people’s democracy in China adequately addresses the functional requirements of voice, representation, accountability, conflict resolution, social integration, consensus building, and short-, medium- and long-term goal attainment.

Different models of democracy

Chinese democracy differs substantively and procedurally from liberal democracy. Substantively, Chinese democracy is people-centered rather than capital-centered. 

As in the case of liberal democracy, it can be said to be judged by the people based on its outcomes, by the extent to which it meets the practical aspirations of all of its people for a better life, but in liberal democracies since the late 1970s, these aspirations are rarely satisfied. Elections and a change of majoritarian regime serves as a safety valve, whereas in China, the democratic system is adjusted with social conditions, and changes in policy are the main way in which difficulties are addressed.

First, the system of People’s Congresses is the guarantee. Elections of delegates to People’s Congresses starting at community-level organizations where people know one another, with each level electing the next highest level which are responsible to the people and to its supervision. 

Second, deliberative democracy is the main form. Consultation at multiple levels includes extensive surveys enabling accommodation of minority views and the right to petition the government with demands or complaints. This makes the whole-process peoples’ democracy different from Western democracy. 

Third, grassroots democracy is the reflection. The whole-process people’s democracy advocates that intra-party democracy should be piloted at the primary level, and emphasizes cooperation, consensus-building, and shared goals (sometimes embodied in plans of all kinds) rather than competition. It also emphasizes the conduct of experiments and pilots (an experimentalist mode of governance with an emphasis on learning from facts) at all levels to design, implement, and evaluate policies. 

China’s model of democracy has served China well, enabling it to rise from being almost the poorest country in the world in 1949 to an upper middle-income country that has lifted 0.8 billion people out of extreme poverty. Rooted in its people, the whole-process democracy also has an ability to mobilize material, human, and financial resources to maintain high rates of people-centered productive investment and accumulation (in real infrastructure, real economic activities, and real services, while seeking to contain financial speculation, which has done so much damage in the Western world).  

Michael Dunford is Emeritus Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Sussex and a visiting professor from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.