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Democratic Centralism: The Core Mechanism in China’s Political System

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal

Updated:2013-11-07 15:25

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In recent years, numerous scholars and people of insight in China and abroad have sought to identify the political institutions that have been responsible for China’s economic success. Many of them have used terms such as “state domination,” “vertical democracy,” “political centralization combined with economic freedom,” “responsible authoritative system,” and “effective one-party system” in an attempt to summarize the features of China’s system. However, there is one thing that they have neglected to consider, and that is the importance of democratic centralism, a system which is explicitly stated in the Constitution of the CPC and the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. In fact, it is democratic centralism that serves as the core mechanism in China’s political system and the institutions that are based on that system.

I. The practice of democratic centralism in the affairs of both the Party and the state is the most important feature of China’s socialist political system

Following its establishment, the CPC identified democratic centralism as its organizational principle of the Party, using it as a guideline for all of its activities. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Party took the innovative step of applying democratic centralism in the political activities of the socialist state, thereby establishing a socialist political system based on the fundamental principle of democratic centralism.

Democratic centralism is the fundamental organizational principle of the CPC. The Resolution on the Third Revision of the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, which was adopted in June 1927, stipulated that the guiding principle of the Party was democratic centralism. This was the first time that democratic centralism was written into the Party Constitution, and it has remained there ever since. In the newest amendment of the Constitution of the CPC, which was adopted at the Eighteenth National Congress of the CPC, the General Program provides four essential requirements with regard to Party building, the fourth of which is to uphold democratic centralism. The provision reads, “It (democratic centralism) is the fundamental organizational principle of the Party, and also the means of applying the mass line in the Party’s political activities.” Chapter II of the Constitution, The Party’s Organizational System, provides, “The Party is an integral body organized under its program and Constitution and on the basis of democratic centralism.” Taking the principle of democratic centralism as a basis, the Party has also formulated a set of basic rules and detailed provisions with a view to regulating political activities and balancing internal relations within the Party, which have been responsible for the unique organizational traits that the CPC displays.

Democratic centralism is the fundamental principle of China’s political system and the fundamental principle for the strengthening of government. As early as 1940, Mao Zedong identified democratic centralism as the system of government under the new-democratic republic in his essay On New Democracy. In his report On Coalition Government, which he wrote in 1945, Mao Zedong pointed out that the organizational principle of the new-democratic state should be democratic centralism. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the principle of democratic centralism was established in the government. According to Article 15 of the Common Programme, which served as an interim Constitution, all state bodies were required to implement democratic centralism. China’s first Constitution was adopted in 1954. According to Article 2 of the document, the National People’s Congress, people’s congresses at all levels, and all other state organs were required to implement democratic centralism. China’s current Constitution, which was adopted in 1982 and has since been amended four times, clearly provides that the state organs of the People’s Republic of China apply the principle of democratic centralism.

Democratic centralism is the fundamental organizational system and leadership system of the Party and the state. Mao Zedong once emphasized that without democratic centralism it would be impossible to consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat. Deng Xiaoping referred to seeking truth from facts, the mass line, and democratic centralism as the three major traditions of the Party, saying that, “If we fail to practice democratic centralism satisfactorily, the Party, the state, socialism … may degenerate.” Jiang Zemin pointed out three things that were indispensable to China: the dominant role of public ownership in the economy, the practice of democratic centralism in politics, and the guiding role of Marxism in culture. He repeatedly emphasized that democratic centralism must improve and develop, not weaken. Hu Jintao stated that upholding democratic centralism was essential to preserving the solidarity and unity of the Party, and to boosting its creativity and vitality. In addition, Xi Jinping pointed out that as the CPC’s fundamental organizational and leadership system, democratic centralism is a scientific, rational and effective system, constituting the greatest institutional advantage of our Party. Since the launch of the reform and opening up drive, new requirements with regard to the practice and improvement of democratic centralism have been set forth at all national congresses of the CPC, in the Guidelines for Inner-Party Life, which were passed at the Fifth Plenary Session of the Eleventh CPC Central Committee, and in the resolutions that were passed at the Fourth Plenary Session of the Fourteenth CPC Central Committee, the Sixth Plenary Session of the Fifteenth CPC Central Committee, the Fourth Plenary Session of the Sixteenth CPC Central Committee, and the Fourth Plenary Session of the Seventeenth CPC Central Committee respectively.

Pictured in the photo is No.625, Fude Lane, Chengdu Road South, Shanghai (today’s No. 30, Lane 7, Chengdu Road North), which was  one of the sites used for the holding of the Second National Congress of the Communist Party of China.The Second National Congress of the Communist Party of China was convened in Shanghai from July 16-23, 1922. The meeting saw the passage of the Constitution of the Communist Party of China—the CPC’s first constitution. The document expounded the Party’s principle of democratic centralism. / Xinhua (Archive photo)

II. The essence of democratic centralism is democracy with leadership

First, democracy and centralism constitute a unity of opposites. Mao Zedong stated that democratic centralism “is at once democratic and centralized, with the two seeming opposites of democracy and centralization united in a definite form.” He also said, “There is no impassable gulf between democracy and centralism.” According to Mao Zedong, democracy is correlative with centralism, and freedom is correlative with discipline. They are the two conflicting sides of a single entity. In other words, democracy and centralism, and freedom and discipline, are conflicting and unified at the same time. For this reason, we cannot emphasize one side while negating the other. As Mao Zedong put it, in practicing democratic centralism, “Our aim is to create a political situation in which we have both centralism and democracy, both discipline and freedom, both unity of will and personal ease of mind and liveliness.”

Second, the essence of democratic centralism is democracy. At its very core, the socialist political system is about the people being the masters of their own country. Democracy is the lifeline of the Party, and the lifeline of socialism. In the unity of opposites that democracy and centralism represent, democracy is the basis and the precondition; it is the decisive factor and the essence. This is because correct centralism cannot exist without full and comprehensive democracy. In the Party, we need to provide broader and more accessible channels for the practice of democracy. This means helping Party members to stay informed about and participate in the affairs of the Party, and encouraging Party members and organizations to free their minds, to seek truth from facts, to explore new path, to speak their minds, to fully express their opinions on the initiatives of the Party, and to engage in full discussion of Party policies. Only this way will we be able to draw on the greater wisdom to bring together correct viewpoints and formulate correct decisions. With regard to the political affairs of the state, we must constantly improve democratic systems, introduce more diverse forms of democracy, and expand the scope of democracy as the political enthusiasm of the people continues to grow. This means expanding the orderly participation of citizens in political activities at all levels and across all areas, and it means implementing democratic elections, democratic policy making, democratic management, and democratic supervision in accordance with the law. Only by doing so will the Party and the government be able to win widespread and solid public support for their policies, and pool together the wisdom and strength of the people in a joint effort to achieve national development goals. The Party has always been committed to its mass line of “from the masses, to the masses.” In essence, the mass line is an approach to democracy, and democratic centralism represents the application of the mass line in the political affairs of the Party and the state.

Third, centralism is an inherent requirement of democracy, without which democracy cannot exist. Democracy has been always subject to organization and leadership. There is no such thing as totally spontaneous democracy, and anarchism cannot be regarded as democracy. In real life, democracy is inoperative without a necessary degree of centralization, and democracy without centralism is bound to be fruitless. Democracy in the absence of centralism, or extreme democracy, will result in nothing but a state of anarchy. According to Mao Zedong, democratic centralism “is centralized on the basis of democracy and democratic under centralized guidance. This is the only system that can give full expression to democracy with full powers vested in the people’s congresses at all levels and, at the same time, guarantee centralized administration with the governments at each level exercising centralized management of all the affairs entrusted to them by the people’s congresses at the corresponding level and safeguarding whatever is essential to the democratic life of the people.” Deng Xiaoping said, “The measures taken for the development of inner-Party democracy are not meant to weaken necessary centralization in the Party, but to supply it with a powerful and vigorous base.” Democracy under centralized guidance is democracy that is subject to leadership. In fact, the major function of modern political parties and governments is to lead democracy. The only difference is that different political parties and governments in different countries do this by different means. Democracy in the United States, for instance, is controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. Rather than calling elections the choice of the people, it would be more apt to call them the choice of political parties. This is because from the nomination of candidates and the raising of election funds right down to the organization of electoral campaigns, elections in the US, both congressional and presidential, are controlled by the political parties. Although independent candidates do occasionally pop up, they are at most an exception, being there mainly for show.

Fourth, the key to democratic centralism is maintaining the right balance between democracy and centralism. In the course of practice, our Party has not only gathered successful experience in the implementation of democratic centralism, but has also learnt painful lessons from the disaster that the Party and the country endured as a consequence of democratic centralism being severely damaged. History has taught us that if a sound balance between democracy and centralism can be maintained, then the implementation of democratic centralism will be effective, the causes of the Party and the people will flourish, our initiatives will progress smoothly, and the difficulties we encounter will be resolved with relative ease; but if a sound balance between democracy and centralism cannot be maintained, then democratic centralism will be violated or even destroyed, and the initiatives of the Party and the people will suffer as a result. Therefore, the key to handling the relationship between democracy and centralism lies in maintaining a sound balance between the two. In a situation where centralism exists in the absence of democracy, or where there is excessive centralism and insufficient democracy, it is likely that individuals or small minorities will act arbitrarily, inhibiting and even suffocating the vitality of the Party and the government. Conversely, in a situation where democracy exists in the absence of centralism, or where there is excessive democracy and insufficient centralism, the likely result will be indecisiveness, an inability to enforce decisions, and a lack of a common agenda, which in turn will render the government ineffective and even lead to a state of anarchy. Only by finding and then maintaining a natural balance between centralization on the basis of democracy and democracy under centralized guidance will we be able to guarantee the smooth operation and effectiveness of democratic centralism.

III. Democratic centralism defines the features and advantages of China’s political system

First, democratic centralism embodies the essence of the socialist system. Deng Xiaoping once said, “Democratic centralism is an integral part of the socialist system. Under this system, personal interests must be subordinated to collective ones, the interests of the part to those of the whole, and immediate to long-term interests. In other words, limited interests must be subordinated to overall interests, and minor interests to major ones. Our advocacy and practice of these principles in no way means that we can ignore personal, local or immediate interests. In the final analysis, under the socialist system there is a unity of personal interests and collective interests, of the interests of the part and those of the whole, and of immediate and long-term interests. We must adjust the relations between these various types of interests in accordance with the principle of taking them all into proper consideration.” He also said, “In the final analysis, the relations between democracy and centralism and between rights and duties are the political and legal expressions of the relations between these diverse interests.” These words reveal the essence of democratic centralism.

Second, democratic centralism guarantees close integration between the leadership of the Party, the position of the people as masters of the country, and the rule of law, which is an inherent requirement of China’s socialist political system. Firstly, the leadership of the Party constitutes the core. In seeking to preserve the Party’s role as a leading core that exercises overall leadership and coordinates the efforts of all related parties, we need to raise the capacity of the Party to govern scientifically, democratically, and in accordance with the law, and thereby ensure that the Party is able to lead the people in governing the country effectively. Secondly, the position of the people as masters of the country is the foundation. In adherence to the principle that all state power belongs to the people, we must expand orderly public participation in political affairs at all levels and across all fields, and organize for the broadest possible public participation in the administration of state affairs, social affairs, the economy, and cultural programs in accordance with the law. Thirdly, the rule of law provides the guarantee. Remaining committed to the rule of law as a fundamental principle, we must establish the concept of the socialist rule of law, ensure that all government initiatives are conducted in accordance with the law, and safeguard the legal rights and interests of citizens. The sound and effective implementation of democratic centralism is the key to maintaining balance and close integration between these three aspects. Without democratic centralism, the integration of the three can only exist in principle but not in practice.

Third, democratic centralism is able to optimize the relationship between democracy and efficiency. A combination of democracy and efficiency has always been an ideal that people have aspired to in the design of social systems. The most superior feature of democratic centralism is that it combines the strengths of both democracy and efficiency. Deng Xiaoping once said that democratic centralism is the easiest and most rational system, and therefore should never be discarded. We say that democratic centralism is a rational system because it gives due consideration to the interests of all parties, and is conducive to balancing personal interests and collective ones, the interests of the part and those of the whole, immediate interests and long-term interests, democracy and the legal system, discipline and freedom, as well as rights and obligations. We also say that democratic centralism is easy to implement. This is because as long as correct centralism can be formed on the basis of democracy, thereby giving rise to correct principles, policies, and decisions, this system is able to unite the will of the Party and the people, effectively integrate resources, allow for the efficient implementation of policies and decisions, and prevent different sides from hindering and constraining each other. In turn, this is conducive to the prosperity and development of the country. In recent years, under the impact of the international financial crisis, Western countries have been held to ransom by “ballot politics,” facing the dilemma of triggering an economic crash if they don’t reform, but risking a government collapse if they do. The shortcomings of this system have been widely criticized.

Fourth, democratic centralism needs to be improved constantly during the course of practice. We must be aware that the problems of insufficient democracy and insufficient centralism are both present in the political affairs of the Party and the state. In some localities and departments, power is excessively centralized and individuals or small minorities act arbitrarily; while in other localities and departments, the orders, restrictions, and policies of superior authorities are ignored, enforced laxly, or undermined with countermeasures. This being the case, we need to work constantly to improve democratic centralism in line with the newest circumstances. On one hand, we need to make sure that every Party member is equal in inner-Party affairs and safeguard the democratic rights that they are granted by the Party Constitution and other rules of the Party. This will ensure that all Party members are able to participate in the discussion, decision making, and management of inner-Party affairs, thus playing their role as principal actors. On the other hand, centralism and unity are the source of the Party’s strength, and the fundamental guarantee for social and economic development, ethnic solidarity and progress, and lasting national peace and stability. The more complex the situation the Party faces, and the more arduous the task it assumes, the more necessary it is to maintain the Party’s centralism and unity. Only with centralism and unity on the basis of democracy will we be able to enhance the creativity, cohesiveness, and capacity of the Party, and thereby ensure the sound progression of China’s reform and opening up drive and socialist modernization drive.


(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.10, 2013)

The author is an editor with the Qiushi Journal Press.

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