By Olalekan A. Babatunde
This opinion is coming on the heels of the United States’ preparation to host more than 100 participants in the initial “Summit for Democracy” from 9-10 December 2021.
World leaders, along with civil society and private-sector representatives will meet virtually in “renewing democracy in the United States and around the world”.
According to James M. Goldgeier and Bruce W. Jentleson in the Politico (5 December), “the summit was never a good idea…” While making reference to the January 6 insurrection, attacks on election officials and ongoing systematic efforts by Republicans in a number of states to curtail voting rights, the authors feared that “the U.S. had questionable credibility to position itself as a leading democracy. “
Determining who is suitably democratic to make the list has already created criticisms and tension. Critics are of the opinion that the list seems to divide the world into “good guys and bad guys.” The entire concept of a democracy summit relies on an overly ideological approach to managing the global agenda. For instance, while Hungary and Turkey are not invited, backsliding democracies such as Poland, the Philippines, Brazil, India and Pakistan on the list raised concerns. Their undemocratic practices have grown worse over the past year. Hungary, the only E.U. member left out, has already said it is excluded and penalised for its closeness to former President Donald Trump.
Just like other genuine observers of the development, China has legitimately argued “the U.S. has no right to monopolize democratic standards to impose its own political system on others and to instigate division and confrontation under the guise of democracy. “ According to its Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, “democracy is the common value of all mankind and the right of all peoples.” Of course, he is right. For a country with a feudal history, China has provided leadership in realizing people’s democracy.
Long before many nations evolved popular sovereignty, freedom and political equality, China has been practicing elective democracy. It was the Communist leader Mao Zedong that introduced New Democracy or New Democratic Revolution, a concept of Bloc of Four Social Classes theory in post-revolutionary China underpinning the fact that democracy in China would take a path that was decisively distinct from that in any other country. Today, China’s version of democracy is consultative, with voting permitted at the very local level and public feedback collected before any law is implemented.
In the words of John Ross, former director of economic and business policy for the Mayor of London on China’s framework and delivery on human rights and democracy, said China is “ far superior to the West’s”, as China focuses on real improvement of the real conditions of humanity. While dialogue on democracy is necessary, the idea behind the event raises fundamental questions. What should democracy be all about? What should be the normative end of democracy? Whose system is delivering democratic outcomes? Is China a democracy or not? It is important to provide some explanation.
When the concepts of democracy as a form of government originated in ancient Athens (Greece) circa 508 B.C. none could ever fathom how thousands of years later the Greek system of direct democracy would pave the way for representative democracies across the globe. The point of departure or contention has often been the designations of whether one’s version of democracy is liberal, direct or pure, indirect or representative or electoral. As democracy varies from peoples, regions, religions and cultures, it is important to underscore the fact that every nation has its own system of democracy.
Whatever it is, nations evolved their own system in line with their socio-economic and political conditions-history, culture, tradition and so on. For example, the Swiss cantons and towns evolved people’s assemblies while the Chinese developed theirs. Also if democracy can be exported, Tunisia where the Arab Spring began and Afghanistan would have been perfect examples. But effectiveness of governance itself is the yardstick of popular government. Today, socialist democracy has built prosperous China in line with the Chinese characteristics. It is not that China had not experimented the western parliamentary, multiparty and presidential systems after its 1911 Revolution. But they failed.
With the founding of CPC in 1921, an illumination towards democracy was birthed. China is one of the countries that have advanced their own form of democratic rule. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and has never stopped to pursue democratic dividends for the people. All along, the Chinese people were at the centre of the struggle. So the end of feudal-autocratic rule gave way for the establishment of a democratic republic. The three decades of political development during the “reform and opening-up” period when socialist democracy and the rule of law were advanced ushered China into a new era.
This is the “Whole-Process People’s Democracy” under the CPC leadership. This sounds all encompassing by integrating process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state. According to Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, “China’s whole-process people’s democracy is not the kind that wakes up at the time of voting and goes to dormant afterwards.” Also, the State Council Information Office of China says it is a model of socialist democracy that covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society. Again, it is the people that elect their leaders. There are nine political parties including CPC in China today but a multiparty cooperation system in which CPC exercises state power. These other parties participate fully in the administration of state affairs under the leadership of the CPC.
Yet, the CPC under president Xi has reinforced and reformed party politics and government institutions in accordance with democratic norms and rule of law. There are also active roles being played by think tanks and united fronts at the grassroots level up to national level in the development of democratic governance and the rule of law in China. They engage and educate policymakers, media and the public on policy issues, and thereby help bridge the gap between policymakers and the public. In fact, according to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tanks Index Report, Asia (with China) has 16.71% in the global distribution of think tanks by region while the North America has 30.05% and the Sub-Saharan Africa 7.06%.
A few of these reforms are the modernisation of China’s governance system and capacity, strengthening CPC’s overall leadership, managing over 1.4 billion population with 56 ethnic groups, advancing democratic elections, robust and widespread consultations, decision-making, management and oversight, and promoting political stability, unity and vitality. Power is derived bottom-up. That is, from the people or grassroots. Participation and liberty is high. There are local people’s congresses at all levels. Townships, provinces and national levels have congresses where over 2 million representatives are elected in agreement with the Chinese founding fathers and leaders’ vision. All administrative, supervisory, judicial and procuratorial organs of the state are created by the people’s congresses, to which they are responsible and by which they are supervised. The National People’s Congress (NPC) is the highest organ of state power and flowed by the National Committee.
Elections in China are extensive and cover all aspects of the country’s political and social life. They include elections to government institutions, villagers and urban residents committees, and employees congresses in enterprises and public institutions. Elections in China are based on equality, and the people’s right to vote and stand for election is fully guaranteed. Each person can cast one vote, and all votes are of equal value. Elections in China are genuine and not manipulated by financial interests. Voters are free to vote for the candidates they trust. The above summary of key democratic organs and processes are enabling China to efficiently and effectively discharge and oversee its day-to-day socio-economic and industrial activities within the country and far beyond. Decision-making procedure and government’s accountability to the people are made easy.
The resultant democratic outcomes for the people are huge. Some of them are worth mentioning. Besides to have successfully tamed the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, China has ended absolute poverty by lifting the last 80 million people. It is a unified multi-ethnic state. The Chinese at the grassroots level, employees at private and public institutions exercise democratic rights. This helps to coordinate the interests of multiple stakeholders, mitigate conflict, and maintain social stability and harmony at the grassroots level. Many successful grassroots experiences and practices have eventually turned into national policies, injecting new vitality into the development of China’s democracy.
A modern prosperous society with the spate of few decades is beyond many imaginations in the world. A democracy that wheeled the engine of the 4th industrial revolution has propelled China from the 7th economy to 2nd prosperous economy in the world. A visitor to China can easily decipher democratic ideals and freedom across the country. Many other countries’ nationalities cannot claim to enjoy the kind of freedom the Chinese have.
Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore once said, “The ultimate test of a political system is whether it improves the standards of living for majority of people.” China has profoundly proved that democracy can be a tool for human development. It has brought rapid development within the country and around the world. With its presence in over 2/3 of the world through bilateral and multilateral cooperation and trade, China respects other people’s democracy and freedom. It does not interfere with internal politics of host country.
Therefore, as the democracy summit is exposing the fissures of the world, it is also revealing the weakness in our ability to reckon with other popular government that are working elsewhere. It also uncovers the hypocrisy in us. We trade and invest in the countries not on the summit list. The China’s own model of democracy is worth paying attention to. Many western scholars, diplomats and media have already paying attention to this type of governance that delivers coherent and long-term outcomes of what a true government should be. True democracy is effective governance that is solving problems but not held by political gridlock, corruption and theatrical distractions.
Participating in the new discussions on democracy is a welcome one but it should afford others to lay out their successes and failures in democracy. This is what a genuine meeting on democracy ought to be. The world is in dire need of pragmatic democratic leadership that will pursue peaceful development, protect people’s rights and promote freedom, and help to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and climate change regardless of race, gender, faith and region. As President Joe Biden has said, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident, we have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” That was exactly what China has done. They consciously developed their model of democracy, defended it against subversions, and strengthened it with their characteristics. What the people are enjoying now is the fruits of democracy.
Dr. Babatunde is a fellow, peacebuilding and evidence practitioner at the Nigeria’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Abuja.