China in Transition

White Paper on Democracy Building in China Justifies Communist Party Rule - The gap between one-party dictatorship and democracy has yet to be bridged

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

In October, the Chinese government issued a white paper titled "Building of Political Democracy in China," the first such document of its kind (note 1). In the white paper, the Communist Party stresses the role it has played in China's social and economic development, and while it says that the people are the "masters" of the state, the document sticks to the position that it is the Communist Party of China that "leads" the people. Unfortunately, there is no way this sort of logic can be accepted in the international community, and the white paper has brought into sharp relief the fact that China's common sense is global absurdity.

"Democracy with Chinese Characteristics" really a democracy?

In the white paper, "a people's democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party of China" is cited as the most important characteristic of China's democracy (note 2). In other words, the white paper states:

"Without the Communist Party of China, there would be no New China nor would there be a people's democracy. This is an objective fact that has been borne out by history. The Chinese people won the right to become masters of the state only after many years of arduous struggle under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. The democratic political system in China was established by the Chinese people led by the Communist Party of China, and its development and improvement are also carried out under the party's leadership. The leadership of the Communist Party is a fundamental guarantee for the Chinese people to be the masters in managing the affairs of their own country."

Furthermore, the white paper says that "the Communist Party of China's leadership and rule is an objective requirement of the country's development and progress," and justifies government under the party on the grounds that its leadership and rule are necessary to 1) promote socialist modernization and realize great national rejuvenation, 2) safeguard China's unification and keep Chinese society harmonious and stable, 3) make state power stable and 4) unite hundreds of millions of people to work in concerted effort to build a bright future.

However, it is needless to say that there can be no democracy if it is assumed, as in China's case, that a certain political party such as the Communist Party is to take up a leadership role. Essentially, democracy is a system under which the mechanism of checks and balances functions through elections, legislatures and the existence of multiple political parties, and where the people can choose their political system and leaders of their own free will. Political parties are recognized in having the right to rule not because they "lead" the people but because they are supported by them. In a democracy, those who oppose the policies and thoughts of the current administration can also influence national politics through elections, legislatures and competition among political parties if they have public support, and at times can even force a change of government. Democracy does not always lead to the right decisions, but even if the electorate were to make a wrong choice, this can be corrected by bringing about a change of government in the next election.

Also, as the experiences of various countries show, administrations that are in power for a protracted period of time will always become corrupt, and the Communist Party of China is no exception. China should also establish a democratic political system, which enables a change of government through switches between the ruling and opposition parties, from the viewpoint of preventing corruption.

The road to democracy remains obscure

On the other hand, while the white paper sticks to the notion of single-party rule, it does not entirely reject the need for political reforms. According to the white paper, in modern-day China,

"the democratic system is not yet perfect; the people's right to manage state and social affairs and economic and cultural undertakings as masters of their country in a socialist market economy are not yet fully realized; laws that have already been enacted are sometimes not fully observed or enforced, and violations of the law sometimes go unpunished; bureaucracy and corruption still exist and spread in some departments and localities; the mechanism of restraint and supervision over the use of power needs further improvement; and the concept of democracy and legal awareness of the whole society needs to be further enhanced. It is clear that there are many problems, such as the need for the expansion of the political participation of citizens in an orderly way, that need to be overcome and resolved. There is still a long way to go in China's building of political democracy, which will be a historical process of continuous improvement and development."

However, when it comes to exactly how democracy is to be promoted, the white paper sticks to principles, and it cannot be helped but to say that it lacks specifics (note 3).

It appears that the aim of the white paper was to deflect criticism of China's human rights record by the United States ahead of U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to China in November 2005, following a visit in October by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. However, a "democracy with Chinese characteristics" that assumes single party rule by the Communist Party of China can only be seen as different in nature when judged by international standards, and this sort of explanation will instead have an opposite effect. In order to gain the understanding of the international community, China should not try to justify single-party rule by the Communist Party to the extent that it warps the meaning of democracy, but instead swiftly present a road map for political reforms and steadily implement it.

November 15, 2005
Note 1:
Note 1) The English text of the white paper can be viewed in its entirety at the People's Daily Online Website.
Note 2:

The characteristics of Chinese democracy cited in the white paper are as follows:

  1. A people's democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party of China
  2. A democracy in which the overwhelming majority of the people act as masters of state affairs
  3. A democracy guaranteed by the people's democratic dictatorship
  4. A democracy with democratic centralism as the basic organizational principle and mode of operation
Note 3:

The white paper cites the following principles for the building of democracy:

  1. Upholding the unity of the leadership of the Communist Party, the people being the masters of the country and ruling the country by law
  2. Giving play to the characteristics and advantages of the socialist system
  3. Being conducive to social stability, economic development and continuous improvement of the people's lives
  4. Facilitating the safeguarding of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and state dignity
  5. Being in accord with the objective law of progress step by step and in an orderly manner

November 15, 2005