China Has Made Great Strides in Developing Democratic Politics

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-19 17:31
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    In reviewing the course of China’s reform and opening up and the achievements made in the process, we should take special note of the changes introduced and advances made in developing local-level democracy. Through their personal participation in a wide variety of practical democratic activities, hundreds of millions of urban and rural residents have gained a greater awareness and deeper understanding of democracy.  

Self-governance at the Local Level of Society, a System Born of China’s Reform and Opening up   

    A revolutionary change was initiated in China’s countryside following the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Farmers were granted the power to make decisions concerning their production and operations, turning farm families into relatively independent operators and stakeholders. Fired with unprecedented enthusiasm, hundreds of millions of farmers have begun looking after their vital interests and have become interested in the management of village affairs, urgently hoping to ensure their rights to practice economic autonomy through the exercise of their democratic rights in the realm of politics. Against this historical background, people in some villages in Luocheng County and Yishan County (now upgraded to a city called Yizhou) in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region took the initiative to set up villager committees through elections. This move won immediate support from the local CPC committee and government. In addition, the CPC Central Committee, the State Council and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress all fully affirmed and recognized the villager committees. 

    The Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of the Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China adopted at the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh CPC Central Committee in June 1981 clearly stated that “gradually realizing direct popular participation in the democratic process at the local level of political power and community life” is an essential element in the gradual development of a highly democratic socialist political system. 

    In September 1982, the Twelfth CPC National Congress again confirmed the decision to develop democracy at the local level, pointing out that “Socialist democracy should be extended to all spheres of political, economic, cultural and social life, democratic management should be instituted in all enterprises and institutions, and management of community affairs by people at the local level should be encouraged.” 

    In December 1982, villager committees created by village residents and urban resident committees were for the first time included in the Constitution when it was revised by the National People’s Congress. The Constitution now explicitly stipulates that resident committees and villager committees established by urban and rural residents based on their place of residence are mass organizations of self-governance at the local level, and that the chairperson, vice-chairperson and members of each urban resident or villager committee are to be elected by the local residents or villagers.

    The development of local-level democracy, especially local-level self-governance in urban and rural areas, received close attention and was thoroughly discussed at subsequent sessions of the CPC National Congress. How to advance democracy in China and the requirement to develop local-level self -governance as a first step were gradually clarified. The Thirteenth CPC National Congress called for “institutionalization of democracy at the local level.” The Fourteenth CPC National Congress called for “strengthening local-level democracy to ensure that workers’ congresses, urban resident committees and rural villager committees function well.” The Fifteenth CPC National Congress called for the establishment of a sound system of democratic elections at the local level and transparency in administrative and financial affairs so that the people can be directly involved in discussions and decision-making concerning local public affairs and public service programs. The Sixteenth CPC National Congress called for expansion of local-level democracy as the foundation work for the development of socialist democracy and clearly summarized three areas for this effort, i.e. self-governance for villagers, self-governance for urban residents and democratic management of enterprises and institutions. At the Seventeenth CPC National Congress, the system of self-governance at the local level was named for the first time as one of the four important systems for promoting socialist democracy in China. In addition, it was reiterated that developing local-level democracy is the foundation work and focus of the effort to develop socialist democracy in order to ensure that people enjoy more democratic rights and enjoy them in a more practical manner. 

  Four Areas of Democracy – Millions of Urban and Rural Residents Practicing Democracy

    The practice of democracy by the Chinese people has been succinctly summarized by the Communist Party of China as “four areas of democracy,” namely democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic management and democratic oversight. 

    Democratic elections are a prerequisite for self-governance at the local level. Democratic elections for cadres on villager committees were the first to attract a great deal of public attention. Various electoral methods have been created by rural residents through actual experience, such as elections conducted through a nomination process open to the entire electorate, elections without pre-selected candidates and elections conducted through a nomination process open to the entire electorate with self-nominated candidates. These have contributed to the change from appointment by a higher level government organ to democratic election by rural residents. Institutions, standards and procedures have been gradually put in place to carry out such elections. Influenced by the implementation of these new election methods for villager committees, bold experiments have been carried out in the electoral system for urban community resident committees in various localities. 

    April 2, 2005, people at a rally pose questions to the speaker. The primary elections are being held in the Yubei District of Chongqing Municipality, China, to select two candidates out of three to compete in election for the position of head of Zhangguan Town. / Photo by Zhang Chuanqi

    Democratic decision-making is the key to self-governance at the local level. Democratic decision-making refers to making decisions on all matters affecting the interests of all villagers or urban community residents according to the wishes of the majority following collective discussion in accordance with set procedures. The whole community must then abide by the decisions that are made in this way. Rural residents have adopted some innovative practices in self-governance to make democratic decision-making more effective, such as villager representative assemblies, referendums for major village affairs and villager assemblies on an area-by-area basis. Urban residents have also adopted some innovative practices in self-governance, such as democratic public hearings, consultative meetings and online voting, allowing extensive participation in the management of community affairs. 

    Democratic management is the foundation for self-governance at the local level. Democratic management means mobilization of and reliance on villagers or residents so that they can work together to administer internal village or community affairs. The goal of self-governance is attained through self-management and internal restraints by way of meetings, rules and regulations, deliberation and consultation, and online forums. 

    Democratic oversight is a guarantee for self-governance at the local level. Democratic oversight means the exercise of oversight on the part of villagers or residents in the administration of major village or community affairs, the work of villager or resident committees and the conduct of cadres through systems for making village or community affairs open to public scrutiny, democratic appraisal of village or community cadres and regular reporting on the work performance of villager or resident committees. The key to democratic oversight is transparency in village or community affairs. All important internal village or community matters and all issues of common concern to villagers or community residents should be made public. 

  Advances in instituting Self-Governance at the Local Level for Urban and Rural Residents 

    Self-governance at the local level in urban and rural areas has become a fundamental Chinese political system at the local level of urban and rural society, and is playing an increasingly important role in the process of building socialism with Chinese characteristics.

    Local-level self-governing organs are constantly improving, and channels to allow residents to participate in the management process and express their demands are gradually expanding. Almost all local-level communities in urban and rural areas have a self-governing community-based organ. As of the end of 2008, 604,000 villager committees, with a total membership of 2,339,000, and over 80,000 resident committees, with a total membership of 422,000, had been set up throughout the country. Most of the villager or resident committees in the country have a people’s mediation subcommittee, a public security subcommittee and a public health subcommittee. Some new types of local-level mass organizations have emerged in both urban and rural areas. In the countryside, approximately 150,000 Specialized Farmer Economic Cooperatives have been set up, with a total membership of 23,630,000 farm households that account for about 9.8% of all farm households in the country. In urban areas, volunteer organizations have been set up in 76% of communities across the country, organizations for people with disabilities in 68% and organizations for senior citizens in 72%.  

    Constant improvement of the democratic management system has led to a gradual expansion of self-governance for urban and rural communities. Direct elections for villager committees were instituted earlier than those for urban resident committees. All villages have held at least 3 such elections and some have held as many as 9. Most of the institutions, standards and procedures for the direct election of villager committees have now been defined. Over 95% of the villager committees throughout the country have been elected through direct election in accordance with the law. Direct elections for urban resident committees have been gradually expanding, and direct elections have been instituted in 22% of all such committees in the country. A villager assembly is convened annually in 35% of the villages in the country, not less than one villager representative assembly is held annually in 57% of all villages, and regulations on self-governance or joint pledges by the residents have been defined for 50% of all villages or urban communities. A system for ensuring transparency in village affairs has been implemented in many areas, allowing villagers to exercise effective oversight and constraints over cadres of villager or urban resident committees through various means, including democratic appraisal, audits for currently serving or departing officials, and resignation or dismissal of officials. 

    Experience in the practice of democracy has increased interest among urban and rural residents in the participation in democratic management. Statistics indicate that the voter turnout in elections for all villager committees was above 80%, with a turnout of 90% in some villages, and the turnout in elections for urban resident committees has been steadily rising. The model of elections conducted through a nomination process open to the entire electorate has been widely adopted, and experience with elections has led to the creation of new models such as elections conducted through a nomination process open to the entire electorate with self-nominated candidates. To address problems such as limited contact and lack of interest in participation among urban residents, communities in some cities have initiated consultative meetings, resident forums and online voting to ensure that urban residents can exercise their democratic rights.

  Basic Lessons Learned in Instituting and Improving the System of Self-Governance at the Local Level

    China has accumulated a great deal of experience in instituting self-governance at the local level in urban and rural areas during the past 30 years of reform and opening up, and the lessons learned can be boiled down to four basic principles: 

    First of all, the leading role of the Communist Party of China and the central government must always be maintained. This provides the political guarantee for sound development of local-level democracy and is also an objective requirement for strengthening and improving the leadership of the CPC and for changing the way the Party governs. All work, from design of institutions and enactment of laws to organization of implementation and standardization of requirements, has been carried out under the strong leadership and with the strong support of the Party and central government. 

    Secondly, the priority of laws, regulations and policies must always be maintained. The Organic Law of Villager Committees and the Organic Law of Urban Resident Committees were enacted following the inclusion of the development of local-level democracy in the revised Constitution in 1982. In addition, villages began formulating local regulations concerning self-governance for villagers. In this way, the democratic rights of urban and rural residents in the administration of public affairs and public service programs have been defined through laws and systems and protected against infringement or denial on the part of any organization or individual, and the exercise of these rights has been put on a legal footing, institutionalized and standardized.

    Third, the status of local residents as the principal participants in local-level governance must always be maintained. All local-level organs have always made sure that the aim and outcome of all their work in the practice of democracy is to safeguard the legitimate rights of local residents, always rely on the participation of local residents as the primary driving force, and always take the satisfaction of local residents as the primary criterion for judging the success of their work in order to ensure that urban and rural local-level democracy remains vital and to provide the drive to ensure its continued survival. 

    Fourth, local-level self-governance must always be in line with the economic and social development of the country. The system of self-governance for villagers is well-suited to the household responsibility contract system with remuneration linked to output. The system of self-governance for community residents in urban areas is in conformity with urban economic restructuring and management reform and to efforts to expand community services and develop communities. The system of democratic management of enterprises is in line with enterprise reform and moves to establish a modern corporate structure in enterprises. 

    The implementation of reform and opening up has shown that keeping the development of Chinese democratic politics in line with economic and social development is entirely compatible with conditions in China and is therefore correct. 

Note: Li Xueju is the Minister of Civil Affairs of the People’s Republic of China

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