Developing Democracy on the Basis of China’s Reality

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2014-05-09 16:40
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Democracy can be described as a product of political progress. At present, many countries face the major task of exploring and developing a democratic system which, by virtue of being based on their historical traditions and national conditions, is geared towards the needs of their social development. China’s modernization and national rejuvenation have been accompanied by its pursuit and exploration of democracy. In fact, democracy can be said to be one of the most important driving forces behind China’s historical progression. China’s democracy demonstrates its own distinctive characteristics, which are attributable to the country’s unique history and national conditions. As China develops and comes to enjoy a higher international standing, its experiences in development and its model of development are becoming the subject of increasing world interest. Systematically summarizing China’s experiences in the development of democracy at this point is not only a necessary requirement for the continued development and improvement of democracy in China, but also serves as a response to the international attention that has been given to China’s democracy.


In hailing democracy as a “universal value,” Western countries deliberately evade the fact that differences exist in the way that different countries practice democracy. In fact, the democratic systems that different countries employ are closely linked to the historical traditions and contemporary conditions of those countries. Each country that takes the path of democracy has its own specific reasons for doing so. At the same time, the role that democracy has played in the modern history of different countries has also varied considerably.


July 5, 2013, residents of an urban community in Hangzhou deliberate community affairs collectively and in small-groups. The holding of democratic consultations in urban sub-districts represents an experiment in community-level democracy carried out by Hangzhou’s Yuhang District. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Han Chuanhao 

British democracy grew out of political struggles that took place within the ruling clique. As a result, the “protection of rights” became the starting point and focus of British democracy. French democracy originated from conflicts between different classes and strata in French society, finding its beginnings in the struggle of the lower classes against the upper class. This is why the pursuit of freedom has always been a constant theme and feature of French democracy. American democracy was born out of the American War of Independence. In contrast to European countries, unique historical and geographical conditions gave the US greater room for maneuver in the choice and formation of national institutions after declaring independence. Consequently, many democratic ideas and political principles that originated in Europe exhibited greater vitality in the New World.

China’s democracy was born out of a crisis of national survival that was instigated by colonial invasion. For this reason, saving the nation from subjugation and ensuring its survival became the historical starting point and logical origin of all initiatives to advance political development in modern China, including the development of democracy. It was in the struggles to save the nation from peril and gain national independence that appeals for democracy and the earliest democratic practices emerged. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese people turned their attention to a new historical task: pursuing rapid national industrialization and establishing a prosperous and strong country. Democracy was employed as a political mechanism to encourage the enthusiastic, active, and creative involvement of the people in national development. Accordingly, the underlying theme of democratic advancement shifted from saving the nation to building a strong socialist country.

While democracy is most certainly the choice of the people, it should be noted that this choice is by no means made randomly. The choices that people make are confined to a scope of possibility that is defined by certain objective factors, such as a historical task or a country’s national conditions. The political systems that China employs are heavily influenced and determined by China’s history and its basic national conditions. At present, China’s fundamental task continues to be the rapid achievement of industrialization and modernization. As China’s basic national conditions dictate, the political institutions and systems that China employs during this phase must be capable of encouraging the enthusiastic, active, and creative efforts of the people in developing the country and pursuing a better life. At the same time, with a view to safeguarding national security and guaranteeing social stability and solidarity, these political institutions and systems also need to be adept at pooling the strength and wisdom of the people and facilitating the rational and effective allocation of resources nationwide. For the China of today, the only political systems that can be regarded as feasible and viable options are those that can bring about national and social development. These are the only systems that the Chinese people genuinely need, and the only ones that can truly be called democratic. 


Through our long-term struggles and explorations, we have succeeded in paving a socialist path of democratic development with Chinese characteristics under the leadership of the Party. Owing to these advances, we have now gained an initial grasp of the underlying requirements for the development of socialist democracy. In other words, China needs to maintain an organic balance between the leadership of the Party, the position of the people as masters of the country, and the rule of law, whilst implementing a system of people’s congresses, a system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the CPC, a system of regional ethnic autonomy, and a system of community-level self-governance.

The CPC is currently holding a series of activities to publicize and carry out the Party’s mass line. These activities practice the principle of “from the masses, to the masses” and engage Party members in criticism and self-criticism in order to increase the capacity of the Party to maintain its purity and to improve, develop and surpass itself. For this reason, these activities can be regarded as a vivid embodiment of socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics. In China, the leadership of the CPC constitutes the backbone of democracy, without which the position of the people as masters of the country would be nothing but empty words.

We have gained a wealth of important insights during the course of our long-term efforts to explore and promote the development of socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics.

Firstly, we need to strike a balance between safeguarding the rights of the people and centralizing state power during the process of economic and social development. The safeguarding of rights constitutes an important aspect of the development of democracy in China. The Chinese people have come to enjoy extensive economic and social freedoms as a result of reform and opening up. The provision of wider rights and the protection of those rights have helped to bring out the enthusiasm, initiative, and creativity of millions upon millions of Chinese people in production. With no increase in the resources at its disposal, China has been able to achieve a historic economic leap forward on the power of the increased enthusiasm of the Chinese people in production. The centralization of state power represents another important aspect of the development of democracy in China. The system of people’s congresses represents the fundamental means and form through which the people exercise state power. The long-term governing position of the CPC—otherwise referred to as the leadership of the Party—represents an institutional embodiment of the centralization of state power. The centralization of power has ensured that China is able to achieve intensive development with a higher level of efficiency.

Secondly, we need to identify consultative democracy as the key focus of our efforts to develop democracy during the process of the country’s industrialization. Consultative democracy is an important embodiment of China’s democracy. Industrialization is a period of social change in which the structure of society undergoes a profound transformation. The emergence of social problems in large numbers makes this phase prone to conflicts and turbulence. As has been demonstrated by the experiences of both developed and developing countries, holding competitive elections and allowing public participation in the exercise of political power during the process of industrialization may intensify struggles between different classes and groups, in turn leading to social conflicts and turbulence.

Focusing on the development of consultative democracy during the process of industrialization represents one of China’s major experiences in the development of democracy. By focusing on the development of consultative democracy, we are, to a certain extent, able to avoid the problems and conflicts that electoral democracy could cause in a society that is undergoing a process of industrialization. This approach boasts a number of merits: first, it is conducive to mitigating social conflicts and broadening social consensus; second, it is conducive to improving the quality of democracy, avoiding one-sidedness, and striking a balance between going with the majority and respecting the minority; and third, it is conducive to increasing the efficiency of decision-making, thereby reducing political costs.

Thirdly, we need to gradually expand and develop the rights of the people along with our continued economic and social development. Safeguarding the rights of the people is an inherent part of developing democracy. However, the realization and expansion of people’s rights is something that cannot happen overnight. Many developing countries have suffered difficulties and setbacks on their path to democracy, with some even experiencing “democratic failures.” An important reason was that the political systems and institutions in these countries were unable to cope with such a dramatic expansion of rights. In other words, what was seen was the development of rights at an excessive rate.

The Marxist outlook on rights holds that rights are a product of economic and social development rather than ideas. According to this outlook, rights neither come naturally, nor can they be gained through political struggle alone; rather, they expand and increase constantly along with the process of economic, social, and cultural development. Rights are in essence a historical and relative concept. People are only able to enjoy a certain right when the conditions that correspond to that right are in place. Therefore, the fundamental means by which China should develop the rights of its people is to take economic development as the central task. By promoting economic and social development, we can create favorable conditions for the development of rights, and promote the further expansion and development of the rights that the people enjoy. This is one of the main reasons why China has been able to enjoy continued social stability in a complicated social environment characterized by rapid economic and social development and a growing public awareness of rights.

Fourthly, we need to target our initiatives in the development of democracy and political reform at resolving practical problems and seek to make progress by engaging in trials. Following the launch of the reform and opening up drive, China’s reform strategy was vividly described as “feeling out the stones to cross the river.” In other words, this is an approach whereby reform initiatives are based on practical problems instead of ideas, and in which reforms are carried out gradually through experiments and trials wherever possible. This represents a successful strategy that China has adopted in reform and the development of democracy. Political reform and the development of democracy not only carry huge responsibility, but also pose high risks. History is dotted with examples of how miscalculation in reform can have serious and even irreparable consequences. It is inevitable that some errors will be made during the course of reform, but we will be able to cope as long as such errors are confined to certain limits. Moreover, errors and failures can deepen our understanding of objective laws, and facilitate our efforts to find more scientific and correct methods of proceeding.


The lesson that we can draw from both history and the present is that no country’s efforts to explore and develop a form of democracy that is geared to its own national conditions will be plain sailing. As has been the case in both Western countries and developing countries, this process will be restricted by a host of historical and contemporary factors. This is also true with regard to China’s efforts to develop democracy. Therefore, we need to remain resolute, objective, and calm in our efforts to develop democracy, striving to achieve active yet prudent development on the basis of both reality and prior experiences. For a period of time to come, the development of democracy in China will continue to be restricted by a number of historical and contemporary factors, such as the phase of industrialization that we are currently experiencing. Our overall strategy in this regard should be to actively yet prudently expand and promote orderly political participation and democratic consultation, and to establish and improve systems for the restriction and supervision of power.

Firstly, we need to expand orderly political participation on different levels. We should adhere to and improve the system of people’s congresses in a continued effort to develop and improve socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics. Political participation represents an important aspect of democracy. China’s major approach to political participation is to ensure participation in decision-making. That is to say, national laws and policies are established on the basis of public will, which is ascertained through a system that allows us to solicit and reflect the opinions of the public. By soliciting the opinions of the public, we are able to ensure that the governance principles of the CPC and the policies and regulations of authorities at all levels correctly reflect and represent the fundamental interests of people from all ethnic groups. Multi-layered political participation is the key to ensuring the orderliness of political participation. Although the political participation of the general public constitutes an essential part of democracy, the capacity of the public to participate and the range of this participation are restricted by the asymmetry of information and experience and by limitations with respect to interests. Multi-layered political participation represents the fundamental means of overcoming and transcending the limitations of public participation. This approach determines the subjects, objects, and means of political participation on the basis of the relevance of interests, the adequacy of information, and the assumption of responsibility. On the basis of distinguishing between different types of political affairs, and by taking the relevance of interests, adequacy of information, and assumption of responsibilities as the criteria, we guide the multi-layered political participation of the relevant groups and their representatives. In addition to guaranteeing people’s right to participate in the political affairs of the state on an overall basis, this approach allows us to avoid the ineffectiveness and disorder that could result from such participation.

Secondly, we need to promote consultative democracy and enhance its quality. Officially recognizing the concept of consultative democracy for the first time, the report to the Eighteenth National Congress of the Party called for improvements to the institutions and work mechanisms of consultative democracy, and defined the extensive, multilevel, and institutionalized development of consultative democracy as the focus of future efforts to develop democracy. In an effort to develop consultative democracy further, we need to expand the range of consultative democracy, promote the development of systems and institutions for the realization of consultative democracy, and work to enhance the quality of consultative democracy. A highly relevant task during our efforts to develop Chinese-style consultative democracy in the future will be to establish mechanisms for the discovery and reflection of public opinion in an objective, accurate, and comprehensive manner. This task should be placed on China’s agenda for the development of democracy, so as to accelerate the establishment of a system for the surveying of public opinion.

Thirdly, we need to develop and strengthen systems for restricting power and conducting democratic supervision. The basic principle of checks and balances is the mutual supervision and restriction of similar subjects of power. The basic principle of democratic supervision, on the other hand, is the supervision and restriction of the authorized by the authorizer and the representative by the represented. Checks and balances and democratic supervision represent two inherently different yet functionally similar administrative mechanisms for restricting and supervising political power. Both need to be enhanced in our future efforts to develop democracy.

Experience has repeatedly demonstrated that China’s efforts to develop democracy must be founded on China’s actual circumstances and on its own experiences as opposed to political dogma or Western values. This represents the fundamental approach to establishing and developing China’s democracy. Through its long-term efforts and explorations, China has succeeded in establishing a relatively systematic framework of democratic institutions that is geared towards China’s current stage of development as well as its future developmental needs. As long as we maintain an unswerving commitment to exploring the path of socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics, we are certain that China will have a bright and promising future. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.23, 2013)

Author: Director of the Institute of Political Science, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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