First, it was the SARS epidemic that forced a whole new culture of transparency on Hu Jintao and his colleagues. Then it was Mr Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing that showcased India’s plurality. Now it is massive public protests in Hong Kong. The “democracy deficit” in China has once again come under sharp focus, leading to renewed questions as to how long a vibrant market economy and an authoritarian, if not totalitarian polity can co-exist.
China is neither an electoral nor a liberal democracy as India is. There have been public dissent and protest movements that have erupted every once in a while but they have all been brutally suppressed as was done to students at Beijing’s historic Tiananmen Square in May 1989 and to the Buddhist-influenced Falungong in April 1999. For a very brief while in 1998 it looked as if a competitor to the Chinese Communist Party in the form of the Chinese Democratic Party would emerge but the CDP was soon banned. The CDP however is very active in the United States of America and elsewhere.
But paradoxes — mostly unappreciated in this country particularly — abound. The CCP has been able to challenge its icons in a manner that no Indian political party has done or can do. Historically, Chinese provinces have enjoyed greater economic and administrative powers than the states in India. The CCP has been as faction-ridden as some major Indian political parties. Policy-making in China has been a pluralistic, often acrimonious process but with definite finality, unlike in India.
In the past decade China has seen what the noted American political scientist Suzanne Ogden has called the “inklings of democracy”. While rule of law is a distant dream, rule by law — as crafted, interpreted and adjudicated by the CCP — is a reality. The man responsible for this was Peng Zhen who had been mayor of Beijing in the Fifties and Sixties. If Mao made China strong, if Zhou made it internationally acceptable and if Deng made it rich, posterity will record that Peng laid the foundations of “democracy with Chinese characteristics”. And there could not have been a more unlikely candidate for this honour. A die-hard Marxist, a victim of the Cultural Revolution for supporting critics of Mao, he rebounded in the late Seventies and ended his long political career as head of the National People’s Congress during 1983-88.
Between 1982-87, there was a heated debate in China on what the ongoing decollectivization and the newly-introduced “household responsibility” system meant for rural self-governance. This system freed peasants from most production and distribution controls. Peng took the position that village democracy was essential for consolidating the spectacular gains from farm liberalization. Opposition was intense. Finally, a law was passed in November 1987 to introduce village-level elections. Reflecting the widespread ambivalence it was called a provisional law. This law was regularized in 1998. Other than Peng (and Deng himself) only the ministry of civil affairs under Cui Naifu showed enthusiasm for this revolutionary step.
Finally, the support of influential leaders like Bo Yibo tilted the balance in favour of the political reformers. The motivations for taking such a step are now being unravelled. There was no popular demand for village elections. It has been argued that “progressive conservatives” like Peng feared the collapse of rural order following the dismantling of the commune system. Elections were seen as a way of placing party officials in control. Although he did talk of accountability of the party to the people, Peng himself saw no contradiction between strong state control and village democracy.
Officially, the claim is that direct elections to village committees have taken place in China’s approximately 930,000 villages at least once since 1987. Independent scholars, however, estimate that this proportion is much less, at between one-third and one-half. These elections have evoked world-wide interest and a number of foreign institutions like the Ford Foundation, Asia Foundation and the Carter Centre are involved in both monitoring and impact assessment. Five years ago, the law making village elections compulsory went through radical changes that introduced free nomination of candidates, secret voting, transparent ballot counting and the right to recall. Undoubtedly, the party is still paramount but gradually elected village committees are taking root in the countryside. These committees comprise three to seven people elected to serve a term of three years and are overseen by a village representative assembly comprising of all village residents. All administrative matters of the village, including tax collection, are entrusted to these committees.
Between 1997 and 2001, the issue of elections at higher levels became a subject of considerable controversy. Jiang Zemin made contradictory statements but Zhu Rongji clearly expressed his preference for direct township elections. While Beijing dithered, Lianjiang Li writing in the China Quarterly pointed out that some provinces “adopted the time-tested strategy of doing without asking”. Thus, it was that Nancheng and Buyan townships in Sichuan province had direct elections in November and December 1998 respectively. Buyan hit the world headlines. Subsequently, direct township elections have taken place in Shanxi, Henan and Shenzen provinces. Indeed, this “doing without asking” approach provided the backdrop to the 1987 village democracy law, since in late 1980 and early 1981 a few villages in Guangxi province had simply gone ahead on their own and formed village committees.
It is most improbable that democracy in China will evolve along Indian lines — even Chinese champions of greater democracy in the mainland do not have such an agenda. The greatest fear of the modern-day Chinese intellectual elite especially is chaos. This mindset is born out of the trauma caused by the collapse of social order during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-69. The difference between Indian-style democracy and chaos to any observer outside India is thin. The dominant view is that the experience of Taiwan in the Nineties notwithstanding, democracy is simply not in the Chinese gene.
Indeed, this was one of the themes of Samuel Huntington’s influential Clash of Civilisations based on a selective reading of Confucianism. But with increasing globalization and with the explosive growth of mobile telephony and the Internet (now around 120 million netizens), civil society could well open up with unpredictable consequences. Globalization is both strengthening Han nationalism (even though “Han” is a mixture of various ethnic groups) and creating space for Western values, culture and consumption styles. Chinese rebels are neither extinct nor endangered. The community is growing as Ian Buruma describes in his recent Bad Elements, although as he himself recognizes many of the protesters and dissidents are Christians.
In 2000, Jiang Zemin saw the need to broadbase the CCP and came up with his famous “three represents” theory to make the party more widely acceptable, particularly to the newly emerging entrepreneurial classes. How the Chinese deal with Hong Kong will reveal their intentions — according to the Basic Law that governs the city for fifty years after Chinese take-over in 1997, direct elections are permitted after 2007. How the Chinese deal with increasing agitations of unemployed workers and frustrated farmers and with the backlash arising out of the dilution of the powers of provinces as the full impact of the World Trade Organisation accession plays itself out will also be crucial.