Why a Western-style Multi-party System Would Not Be Suitable for China

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-19 20:09
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    The greatest difference between a Western-style democratic system and China’s political system is in the party system. The difference between a Western-style multi-party system and the system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (the multi-party cooperation system) raises an important question: Why not learn from the readily available and mature Western-style political party system and why emphasize so strongly that we cannot simply introduce a Western-style multi-party system, instead stressing the necessity of following a political development path of socialism with Chinese characteristics? Why choose to go through the difficult process of finding our own way one step at a time? Is a Western-style multi-party system suitable for conditions in China? 

  I. Shortcomings of a Western-style Multi-party System

    1. One major shortcoming of the Western-style multi-party system is short-term behavior. It stresses competition and the number of votes, so the ruling party inevitably puts its own interests first and does only what is in its interests to win party elections. This inevitably leads to inconsistent and short-term policy decisions. For example, the US administration sells a batch of weapons to Taiwan during all general election years to get more votes and solidify its ruling position, despite the fact that this practice hampers the development of Sino-US relations and is not in the long-term interests of the US. On the other hand, such weapon sales increase employment and are therefore popular with the voters and help the ruling party get more votes. Long-term interests can only be addressed after the general elections.  

    2. Another staggering shortcoming of a Western-style multi-party system is overemphasis on local interests. Since members of the congress or parliament are all locally elected, candidates are apt to pay more attention to local interests to garner more votes. In 2007, for example, some US Congress members whipped up sentiment for trade protectionism aimed at China, submitting some 50 bills to limit free trade to the US Congress for deliberation. This may gain favor for them in certain areas and with some voters in the short term, but it is not in the overall interests of the country.

    3. One feature unique to a Western-style multi-party system is the system of checks and balances and a lack of coordinated action and collaboration. Since all political parties want to rule the country, the parties not in power try to discredit the party in power by any means necessary to dislodge it, leading to parties feuding with each other and resulting in inefficiency. When things get really bad, different political parties declare war on each other, with party members only focusing on party loyalty without regard for what is right or wrong. They often abandon the principle of putting the interests of the majority above those of the minority, and do not act in the national interest. 

    4. Multi-party elections consume huge amounts of money and politics are manipulated and controlled by interest groups. As a common saying goes, “Money talks.” The actions of politicians that receive contributions from interest groups are inevitably affected and controlled by them. The controversy over gun control laws in the US is a good example. Despite the deaths of a number of students at Virginia Polytechnic State University in 2006, there has been no sign of a renewed debate on gun control. Nobody expected the Bush administration or the Republicans to do anything about it because 92% of the US$9.1 million in election funds in the 2000 election came from organizations opposed to gun control. This is the reason why the candidates of the Democratic Party also lacked the courage to raise the issue of gun control in the recent general elections. In 2003 the US launched the war in Iraq on the grounds that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), but the real purpose was not so clear. In fact, Iraq had no WMDs, but the war was very beneficial to the economic interests of the US ammunition and petroleum industries. For this reason many people believed that the real reason behind the war was the influence of ammunition and petroleum monopoly capital.  

    5. Some political parties risk vote-rigging and other illegal means to win elections, such as in the infamous 1970s Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon. In Australia, someone was caught red-handed putting up false posters for the opposing party in 2007, exposing the dirty tricks of the responsible candidate to the public. Bizarre dirty tricks are common and nothing new in Western elections.  

    6. Candidates of all political parties attack their rivals in their struggle to win the election, triggering bitter enmity between their respective followers, aggravating social issues and increasing conflicts. This trend, if left unchecked, could lead to a split between groups and even to a split in a country or nation. Some 300 were left dead in Nigeria, a country that practices Western-style democracy, after an intense clash between supporters of an opposition party that accused the election of being rigged and the supporters of the ruling party in local elections at Jos, capital of Plateau State, Nigeria.  

    7. Western-style democratic elections tend to consolidate the control of powerful local interests and tend to consolidate and strengthen the existing social structure. The conservative nature of such elections causes problems for developing countries in their transition to democracy. For example, the common people in many developing countries are often controlled by powerful local interests. One powerful local person might control a huge block of voters. A candidate must adopt policies favorable to these local powers in order to gain or stabilize his or her political advantage, thus consolidating the political power of powerful local interests.  

    8. Inter-party competition causes immense difficulties for social reforms. Take Japan for example. Some years ago, Junichiro Koizumi was elected under the banner of reform and was later forced to step down because of his reform efforts, and domestic reform did not make any substantive progress. Implementation of a Western-style multi-party system makes any change or reform in the system extremely difficult. This is because any change or reform will lead to a shift in the balance of interests. In the short term, one group will gain more ground for their interests while another group will lose ground or gain less ground. Thus, a change or reform triggers objections from the latter group, and the opposition party will be sure to take advantage of this, making it more difficult to carry out any change or reform. In addition, a reform goes through a process of gradual formation and improvement. When the change or reform is first carried, it will inevitably produce many new problems, and these will likewise be capitalized on by the opposition party, making it difficult to press forward with the reform. In fact, under the Western-style multi-party system it is almost impossible to carry out any major reforms affecting society. 

    9. Western-style inter-party competition can also lead to wave of inwardly focused national chauvinism. Everyone knows that peaceful negotiation is the best way to settle issues or disputes between countries. But under the cutthroat competition of a Western-style multi-party system, neither party can compromise. No ruling party can afford to be accused of betraying the country, and extremists often take advantage of this to “kidnap” the hearts and minds of the majority of the common people, rendering peaceful negotiation fruitless or making it difficult to carry out any results of negotiation. Under certain conditions, the ruling party even purposefully aggravates the situation to strengthen their ability to stay in power. 

  II. Misunderstandings about China’s Political Party System 

    The Chinese system of multi-party cooperation is also a form of democratic system, and the Chinese system has obvious advantages and greater potential compared with other forms of democracy. One very convincing piece of evidence is that the system provides reliable political guarantees for steady progress and eventual success of the reform and opening up, a gigantic social reform in China. 

    There is no denying that China’s political system in its current state is still plagued by problems of one sort or another, but these will be addressed and eventually resolved in reform of the political system. Such problems are problems occurring in the course of implementation, not problems with the political party system itself, so their impact should not be overestimated. As a matter of fact, the magnitude of these problems are being exaggerated by many people, intentionally or unintentionally. While such actions are sometimes ideologically based, there are a number of reasons why many people innocently adopt this attitude. These reasons are discussed below.

    1. One reason is prejudice born of habit. Some Westerners see the Chinese multi-party system of cooperation as autocratic and totalitarian, but this is a very biased view. Westerners are accustomed to their two-party or multiparty system, and are unfamiliar with systems different from theirs. In addition, the fine cultural tradition of maintaining harmony despite differences, peculiar to the Chinese nation, is difficult for Westerners to understand. They particularly dislike the Chinese political system because of the huge ideological gap between China and Western countries.  

    2. Some people get mixed up about different issues. Many people attribute non-political problems to the political system, such as graft among a small number of officials. They lay the blame for such corruption on the Chinese system of multi-party cooperation. In fact, this problem cannot be solved by a Western-style multi-party system, as has been proven by the experience of many countries and regions. Take the US as an example. The US is a typical Western democracy. It is also has a typical Western-style multi-party system, but has the system been able to prevent corruption in the US? Obviously not ! According to a US Department of Justice report, a total of 17,945 federal, state and local officials (including employees of the executive, legislative and judicial branches) were accused of corruption in the two decades between 1985 and 2004, 15,552 of whom were convicted. The number of private citizens involved in public corruption cases was also amazing. The number of private citizens accused of being involved in public corruption cases between 1985 and 2004 totaled 5,657, 4,927 of whom were convicted. US corruption is rooted in the social, economic and political system. The driving force and lubricant that keeps the US system in motion can be said to be a wide variety of interest groups. These interest groups pressure public policymakers to find ways and means to maximize their special interests, even at the expense of the overall interests of society. This occurs mainly through what is called the “revolving door” phenomenon, in which individuals shuttle from the public to private sector and back to serve the objectives of interest groups. In a word, commercial interest groups buy public functionaries with huge sums of money and public servants peddle their political impact. These are the basic features of the “revolving door” phenomenon, the abyss of bureaucrat-merchant collusion as well as power and money trade-offs. This phenomenon is rampant in the US today, and its smooth operation tends to accelerate US corruption.  

    3. A third reason is unrealistic expectations of perfection. Any political system has defects. Furthermore, all systems are implemented by people. People are not like machines. People inevitably make mistakes in the course of implementation. Some people confuse the problems in the implementation of China’s system with shortcomings intrinsic to the system, thus leading to the worship of Western-style democracy. 

    Morning of November 22, 2008, 685 Party members in Dengmingsi Town, Dongguang County in Cangzhou, Hebei Province vote in competitive election for a new town Party secretary. / Photo by CFP

  III. Different Party Systems Are Influenced by Different Political Cultures

    The Western-style multi-party system is a product of Western history and culture. It has been practiced for several centuries in the West, and its shortcomings are by and large tolerated by Westerners. But what is practicable in Western developed countries will not necessarily work in developing ones. Forceful transplant of such a system can result in dire consequences. I believe the impact of different cultures on the political system is mainly manifested in the following ways:  

    1. There is a difference in terms of people’s demands on the government. The Western-style multi-party system is chiefly designed to prevent a handful of people from abusing power. It balances interests among different sectors of the ruling class through multi-party competition and prevents one sector from totally dominating the ruling class. People are most afraid that the government will abuse its power, and less worried about the government’s performance in ruling the country. This is the very reason why the only government authority the US set up in the early days of its independence was a Congress. There was no president or Supreme Court, and the Congress had no executive power, a situation that persisted for many years !

    People in China, on the other hand, want a clean, hardworking, pragmatic and effective government. They are very insistent about government efficiency. If we had adopted a Western-style multi-party system, it would have inevitably meant a system of checks and balances, making it difficult to have efficient governance. Rescue and relief efforts following the devastating May 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in western China’s Sichuan Province provides a good example. Vicente Trius, president of the Asia region for the world superstore giant Wal-Mart, told a Xinhua correspondent that he had worked in many countries and experienced natural calamities there, but it was the first time he had seen such an outstanding performance as by the Chinese government following an earthquake of such magnitude. This showed the practical attitude and high efficiency of the Chinese political system, an efficiency that is often difficult to attain under a Western multi-party system with its cutthroat competition among parties. 

    2. There is a difference in the way people think. Western culture stresses individualism, and tends to discredit the idea that anyone can work for overall interests. The plan for politics and democracy is for two or more political parties to compete among themselves for the different interest groups they represent, achieving a balance of interests among various interest groups via democratic elections. In Western-style politics, a balance is sought between two or more policy lines. The result is a vacillating policy line that works for balance through this vacillation and progresses in the course of this vacillation. This makes it difficult to ensure that the rights of the minority and the disadvantaged are safeguarded.  

    On the other hand, the traditional Chinese way of thinking is to consider the overall picture, stressing the whole and collectivism. Chinese are taught from childhood to have good morals, ensure good order in their families, work for good local government and safeguard peace for all in an effort to represent overall interests and the interests of the country and stand for just consideration of the interests of all. As the country becomes more modern, China has still less reason to follow the old, disorderly path of Western countries in which different political parties compete in elections and policies vacillate between two or more lines. 

    3. Chinese people are more aware of the importance of unity and cooperation. China was rampant with party strife as far back as the Tang Dynasty more than a millennium ago. This was a persistent ailment and chronic disease in ancient Chinese officialdom. As the political parties struggled with each other, none of them would stop to think about whether the viewpoints, opinions and methods of their rivals had merit or not, invariably denigrating them while arguing for their own views. They tended to ignore right and wrong as well as principles in their struggle to be victorious. For the nation, this led to a variety of harmful consequences and no benefits. Because of the influence of feudal officialdom and the lack of oversight, the destructive practice of struggle among political parties could have easily appeared on Chinese soil. It has already emerged in the political arena of Taiwan, where the Green camp has objected to many bills submitted by the Pan-blue camp, even when they were reasonable bills. This situation has definitely impeded Taiwan’s regional economic development and development in other areas and is not in the people’s best interests.  

    The type of multi-party system that features competition among political parties is not conducive to unity and is more likely to lead to the formation of different camps, making it incompatible with Chinese culture. In contrast, the multi-party cooperation system replaces antagonism and struggle among parties with cooperation and consultation. In this way it avoids unstable political situations and frequent reshuffling of political regimes that result from struggle among parties, thus conserving the resources of society to the greatest extent and helping maintain a stable and united political situation. This is naturally more compatible with Chinese culture and conditions in China. 

    Democracy has now become a common goal of all humankind and it is also the orientation of Chinese political institutional reform. Whatever specific system of democracy a country chooses to practice, however, it must be compatible with the conditions of that country. Because different countries have different conditions, the paths they take in developing democracy and the style of democracy they develop also vary. This is also a concrete reflection of the diversity in the development of human civilization. The numerous shortcomings inherent in a Western-style multi-party system and the nature of Chinese culture make that system completely unsuitable for China to follow. 


Note: Source: Red Flag Manuscript, No. 11, 2009

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