by Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Other than global economic and social imbalances, and climate change, defining and protecting human rights is the most important challenge for the international community.
“Whole-process people’s democracy” is a mysterious phrase to some Westerners, who assume that China’s political system has neither multiple parties nor general elections and cannot be democratic in any way.
Chinese President Xi Jinping used six aspirational adjectives to explain China’s great rejuvenation, the third of which is “democratic.” He calls democracy “a shared value of humanity and a key tenet upheld by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chinese people,” which he says is necessary, “to solve the problems that the people want to solve.”
The CPC’s call is to expand the orderly political participation of the people, strengthen the protection of human rights and the rule of law, and ensure that the people enjoy extensive rights and freedoms in accordance with the law. Thus, enhancing the whole-process people’s democracy and human rights.
Democracy in the system involves absorbing public opinion via feedback mechanisms, such as mass polling, to discern what people think about proposed new policies. This is a process that the Party calls “pooling people’s wisdom.” Another example is when officials are nominated to new positions, there is a period of time provided for candid feedback from colleagues and subordinates as well as from superiors.
So, even though there are no elections in the Western sense, there is a good deal of engagement with different constituencies in China.
To enhance the whole-process people’s democracy, China upholds and improves the people’s congress system to properly and effectively exercise its power of oversight.
The work reports of Party leadership at Party congresses every five years, and of the government at the National People’s Congress every year, reflect a great deal of input and suggestions from all relevant officials, experts, and constituencies. The documents circulate iteratively during the months of the drafting process.
The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference has the growing social role of expertise and influence.
I have been coming to China for more than 30 years. I have traveled across China, visiting over 100 cities, with my long-term partner, Adam Zhu, for research and interviews, books and essays, television and documentaries. Yet, as much as I thought I knew China, I did not appreciate all that is required for poverty alleviation until I visited poor regions, especially remote mountain villages, and spoke with poor villagers.
In 2013, China proposed the concept of targeted poverty alleviation. “Targeted” means standardized procedures and individualized programs to lift each poor family out of poverty. Five levels of local Party secretaries coordinated their roles — provincial, municipal, county, township, and village. Third-party evaluations were conducted regularly and randomly to ensure accuracy and honesty.
Every poor family in China had its own file — that’s millions of poor families, each with its own customized plan, each checked monthly, and digitized for central compilation and analysis. Local officials were dispatched to impoverished villages to manage poverty alleviation, sometimes for two years.
After eliminating all extreme poverty in 2020, China set a broader, longer-range, multi-decade goal: Common Prosperity.
Why does the world misunderstand the Party? The problem, I argue, is partly semantics, because the English word “party” connotes, in democratic political systems, a political party that competes in free and open multi-party elections. When a ruling party does not compete in free and open multi-party elections, that political system is deemed not democratic.
This portrait mispaints the Chinese system, which is founded on a different principle, where the CPC is the ruling organization, not a competing political party. It is a party of dedicated elites from all sectors of society, consisting of around seven percent of the population but tasked to represent the fundamental interests of all the Chinese.
Thus, the CPC, as the ruling organization, is not the equivalent of a ruling political party in Western systems, where political parties represent only a certain group of voters and are time-bounded by election cycles.
For this reason, the CPC has a higher and broader obligation to enhance the living standards and personal well-being of all Chinese citizens. This includes reforms, the rule of law, transparency in government, public participation in governance, increasing democracy, various freedoms (including freedoms of expression), and human rights.
Editor’s note: Robert Lawrence Kuhn is chairman and president of the Kuhn Foundation.