Part Two: China and the Democratic Peace Thesis

I am in no way an expert on China’s politics. In fact, I never even had the chance to take a course on Chinese politics while I was in high school, and it was a required course for 90% of the students. For research purposes, I ended up looking for materials in the “reddest” parts of the bookstore and library, which was actually quite enjoyable. But then I realized the information I had taken so long to collect was mostly irrelevant to this project, so I tagged the section I wrote on the structure of the Chinese government to the end of this report as an appendix. This part of my project is dedicated to answering the question of whether China is a state that can be considered a “smurf” based on the results I obtained from the first part of my project (see here). This part turned out to be incredibly short, unlike the first part.

In the first part of this study, I established that the constructivist explanation and public constraint explanations for the DPT were logically cogent and complementary. With that in mind, I will examine the question of whether The People’s Republic of China1 can be considered a “smurf”.

Generally, the Chinese public respects the leadership of the ruling party2 because of its efficiency and policy success record. There is no organization which can threaten this leadership. Because of this, the primary objective of the ruling party is to maintain social stability, and the primary method by which the public can “punish” the government is not to threaten their power, but to create unrest. Unpopular phenomena are met with widespread displeasure, usually in the form of online protests. To maintain stability, information transparency and availability are sometimes sacrificed. However, aside from the use of censorship, the Chinese government tends to avoid actions that cause displeasure or prioritizes resolving the issues that cause displeasure if plausible. This behavior is consistent with that of any government whose actions are affected by public opinion.

As a reminder, these are the criteria a state must satisfy to be considered a smurf, as derived from the logic evaluations:

  • Smurfs are in a security alliance with other smurfs
  • Smurfs are recognized as “mature representative democracies”
  • Smurfs make a commitment for peaceful relations with other smurfs
  • People of smurfs see the alliance with other smurfs as beneficial
  • The people of smurfs have some means of punishing their leaders for decisions they can rationally conclude were harmful to their interests from a large amount of pluralistic, transparent and non-partisan information on foreign policy.

How does China perform?

Smurfs China
Security alliance with recognized smurfs No (no security alliance with NATO or EU member states)
Recognized as mature representative democracy No (recognized as authoritarian state)
Commitment for peaceful relations with other smurfs Yes (declaration of commitment to peaceful rise)
Favorable views of security alliance with other smurfs Not applicable
Non-partisan media No (Media is state-run, and some perspectives are censored or shunned by a significant majority)
Transparency and availability of information on foreign policy High (Foreign policy is not considered sensitive information)
Government sensitivity to public opinion Strong
Effect of public opinion on government policies Strong
Ability of public to punish imprudent actions Moderate (Punishment comes in the form of social media protests)

 

I can conclusively say that at least right now, China cannot be considered a smurf, though public opinion does have a significant impact on foreign policy (though some argue that this is a covariant relation). However, the suggestion that the peace between recognized democracies may be partly caused by recently constructed norms raises several questions about the dynamics between China and recognized democracies:

  1. If the Chinese government were to significantly decrease the amount of censorship they used and increase transparency ceteris paribus, would the West view China as more “trustworthy” and take China’s declaration of commitment to a peaceful rise more seriously?
  2. If the advantages of China’s political framework2 were to be fully developed and fully exploited by her citizens without setting the “critical” element of holding national elections, ceteris paribus, would recognized democracies recognize China as a democracy? Would they only recognize China as a democracy if China adopted a Western-style democracy?
  3. What if the situations in 1 and 2 were to both happen, ceteris paribus?
  4. If China were to form an important security alliance with several recognized democracies ceteris paribus, would there be a “democratic” peace between them? What about between China and recognized democracies outside of the alliance? In other words, can there be a constructed peace between China and other states without the constraint of rational public opinion derived from transparent and non-partisan information?
  5. Is belief in the DPT harming efforts at establishing a peaceful coexistence between China and Western powers, especially the United States?

Endnotes:

  1. Note that “China” is used here to refer exclusively to the mainland People’s Republic of China.
  2. There are 9 parties in the People’s Republic of China, but only 1 legal ruling party as decreed by the Constitution: the Chinese Communist Party.
  3. See the Appendix, which gives an overview of China’s political framework

 

Appendix: Elections, Representation, and Government for the People

“China is a democracy”, says the title of the last chapter of a book called “Is China a Democracy?” (Lacy 1948). I had planned to look into this source until I saw that it was published in 1943 and republished in 1948, both of which were bad times in history to inquire whether China is a democracy and conclude that yes, China is definitely a democracy. This is especially true for 1948, when a civil war was going on that was caused by discourse between major political parties largely due to the lack of democracy. The civil war resulted in a massive regime change in 1949 that, according to her people and new government, made China far more democratic than she had ever been. But according to the Western definition of democracy, that assessment is nonsensical, because what New China called democracy did not look the same as what the West called democracy. In fact, New China’s government had adopted the system of democratic centralism1, which is exactly what the Soviet Union called democracy. Though there is a generally accepted definition, democracy remains in the eye of the beholder, as it always has been, and China2 considers her political framework democratic for her own reasons.

China is usually not considered a democracy by those outside of China due to the lack of national leaders who are elected by the public. However, that does not mean China does not have elections, or that national leaders are not elected in some way. In fact, if having “national level elections” is considered a critical factor in determining whether a state is a democracy (as assumed from the methodology of the Polity Data Series and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index), China can technically be considered an indirect indirect indirect indirect democracy. Or an indirect indirect indirect democracy for residents of independent municipalities3,4. The president, as well as many other upper level government officials, are elected by the National People’s Congress (NPC), which is the nation’s highest legislative body. The NPC is elected by congresses from the provincial level of administration, and those congresses by congresses an administrative level below them, and so on. Congresses from the lower levels of administration (towns, cities with no districts, and city districts) are elected directly by the people. The lower levels of administration are divided into electoral precincts, and each precinct produces 1-3 representatives. All citizens above the age of 18 who have not committed serious crimes that resulted in the stripping of their political rights5 have the rights to vote and to be elected without regard to ethnicity, age, education level, gender, or political affiliation. Voting at every level is anonymous.

Another misconception is that there is only one political party in China and that its power goes completely unchecked. There are nine parties in total, but only one ruling party (the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP). The other 8 parties, called democratic parties, are responsible for voicing their respective interests and, to a degree, checking the power of the ruling party by giving suggestions and criticisms at conferences. Though only Communist Party members may hold the highest offices at each level of administration, independents and members of other parties are allowed, and even encouraged, to serve as deputies to ensure representation. Historically, there have been 5 vice presidents and vice premiers who were not part of the Communist Party. There is a quota to ensure that independents and the democratic parties have a reasonable amount of representation in the NPC. There is also a consultative organ called the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) whose delegates come from different sectors of society. They include members of the democratic parties, religious institutions, interest groups, intellectuals, businesspeople, and so on. The CPPCC voices the interests of groups they represent and offers advice and criticism to the NPC and central government, but unlike the NPC, its delegates are not elected and do not vote on policies. The NPC and CPPCC are the main institutions involved the process of “democratic consultation”.

Arguing what democracy is or is not is never a very productive task in realpolitik. It is a topic that has been debated for over two millennia with consensuses that change with time. Assuming that “proper democracy” can only come with slight variations is misguided and villainizes the possibility of diversity in political development. Currently, China’s democratic framework is undoubtedly flawed in its implementation. But its design is constantly being improved via administrative reforms and the people are becoming increasingly aware of the ways they can communicate their wishes to their representatives and local governments. When sufficiently developed and its advantages fully exploited by the public,this four-times indirect democracy could work as well as any other democracy for producing policies and national leaders with the people’s approval. But it will take time.

Endnotes:

  1. The textbook explanation of democratic centralism describes it as the gathering of the ideas and opinions of the people or their representatives from below and decision-making with the guidance of political elites from above. It can also be described as centralized authority with democratic characteristics.
  2. Note once again that “China” is used here to refer exclusively to the mainland People’s Republic of China.
  3. Typically, there are four indirect elections between the people and the president: municipal, provincial, national, and presidential. In the case of an independent municipality, the municipal level is equal to the provincial level in other administrative regions, so there are only 3 indirect elections.
  4. An independent municipality(直辖市) is a large city that is not a special administrative district and does not fall under the administration of a province or autonomous region.
  5. Political rights are stripped for life in the case of serious offenses such as rape, corruption or murder.

 

References:

Betts, T. J. “Chinese Public Opinion.” Foreign Affairs, April 1, 1933.

Tong Hua (仝华). “毛泽东《论人民民主专政》学习导读”[A Guide to Mao Zedong’s

“On Democratic Dictatorship by the People”]. Si Xiang Li Lun Jiao Yu Dao Kan,2014(07):47-53.

Xi Jinping (习近平). “决胜全面建成小康社会 夺取新时代中国特色社会主义伟大胜利”[The Nineteenth Congressional Meeting Report]. 2017.

Yu Keping (俞可平). “民主是个好东西” [Democracy Is A Good Thing]. Beijing Daily

News.

Yu Keping(俞可平).中国如何治理? [How is China Governed?]. Understanding China 1. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2018.

Sun Long(孙龙) and Lei Tao ( 雷弢). “关于县级人大代表选举参选率的调查分析与思考” [A Report and Reflection on the Voter Turnout Rates of Local Level Congressional Elections]. http://sky.cssn.cn/zzx/zwzzzd_zzx/201605/t20160519_3016542.shtml

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