When King John of England agreed to the Magna Carta in 1215 to make peace with the rebellious barons, the royal charter was meant to protect the nobles' property rights. The primacy of the privileged has since become a hallmark of Western democracy.
When Austrian-American political economist Joseph Schumpeter espoused an elitist model in 1942, he argued that given the incapacity of ordinary people to make intelligent decisions in politics, it is necessary to leave governance to politicians chosen through competitive elections, and his theory has gained broad acceptance in the West.
However, from a Chinese point of view, this kind of democracy is at best a procedural democracy, which may be a far cry from substantial democracy or real democracy. The Western democracy today faces multiple challenges, ranging from stagnant living standards, a divided society and monetized politics to rising populism, and needs serious reform to live up to the expectations of the people.
In contrast, China has long been exploring what is called people's democracy with varying degrees of success. The defeat in the Opium War (1840-42) waged against China by Britain ushered in a period of prolonged instability. Colonial powers invaded China and forced it to pay huge reparations. Things did not change for the better even after the 1911 Revolution, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In the absence of a strong central authority, the warlords, each supported by imperialist powers, fought one another for dominance. The country descended into civil war and millions of lives were lost.
Most patriots who were exploring the road to national rejuvenation shared the belief that the Chinese should be the masters of their country but a solution to the problems did not emerge until the late 1910s, when the October Revolution in Russia, in which revolutionaries seized power and established the Soviet republic, awakened Chinese progressives to Marxism-Leninism. They realized that the working class and peasants should be mobilized to fight the warlords and imperialist powers in order to achieve national unity and independence.
When the Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in 1921, most of its members were Marxist intellectuals. Three years later, it formed an alliance with the Nationalist Party (KMT) against the warlords. There were two leanings within the CPC, with some cozying up to the KMT and others prioritizing urban workers' movement while ignoring the peasantry. This alliance collapsed after a KMT coup in 1927.
Based on research in the rural areas in Hunan, his home province, Mao Zedong asserted that the CPC should rely not only on workers but also, more importantly, on peasants, who constituted the vast majority of the population. He called on the Party to reach out to the peasants, understand their needs and help improve their material conditions.
At the end of 1935, after the CPC-led Red Army arrived in Shaanxi Province following the strategic retreat from KMT onslaught, known as the Long March, Mao proposed a government that should represent not only workers and peasants but the whole nation. He integrated his Mass Line with Vladimir Lenin's democratic centralism, which combines centralism built on the basis of democracy or "from the people, to the people," with democracy under centralized guidance. A people's democracy with distinctive Chinese characteristics began to emerge.
There were some detours like the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when many laws were trampled upon, and they offered a harsh lesson to build a real people's democracy based on rule of law.
Today, people's democracy in China is a three-pronged institutional arrangement comprising: (i) the Party's leadership, (ii) the people as the masters of the country, and (iii) rule of law. The purpose of this arrangement is to establish the people as the masters of the country, while the other two serve as a double guarantee for that.
The CPC plays a leadership role as it represents the overall interests of the people, originating from China's long tradition of a "unified ruling entity" since the country's first unification in 221 B.C., and a leadership structure based on a meritocratic system of "selecting and electing" the best and the most competent to govern the country.
In today's politics, the Party's leadership effectively forestalls simple-minded populism, monetized politics or Western attempts to stage a "color revolution" in China. It is naive to assume that the people can rule a country without any organization providing leadership. Elections need to be organized, procedures established and external interference forestalled. All these tasks are performed by the CPC, a political institution of over 90 million members, larger than the German population, with broad representation and popular support, and committed to the public good.
As for rule of law, it requires first of all strict observance of the Constitution. Unlike the Magna Carta, which prioritized the interests of the rich and wealthy, the Chinese Constitution stipulates that the state shall serve the people and "uphold a fundamental economic system under which public ownership is the mainstay and diverse forms of ownership develop together." It adds that the state shall protect both public property rights and private property rights. Over 90 percent of Chinese households today own properties, a remarkable achievement by itself.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union offered a chilling lesson to most Chinese on how crucial people's democracy was for the protection of their interests. Agitated by the West, the Soviet Union decided in February 1990 to abandon the leadership of its Communist Party and subsequently, public ownership. The fallout was devastating: The country disintegrated and people's wealth was plundered, followed by social disorder and a sharp rise in unemployment and the death rate.
In China, the double guarantee ensures that the people are the masters of their country and their fundamental interests are well expressed and protected. People's democracy is not only a guarantee of people's properties, but also a series of institutions. They range from consultative democracy in each and every level of China's social and political life, to the world's most extensive use of opinion surveys on public policies, to soliciting public opinion directly via the Internet on all major policy issues, and to institutionalized democratic decision-making in producing five-year plans for the nation and for different localities. Each five-year plan goes through hundreds of rounds of consultations at all levels of the state and society.
In many ways, China's success is due to the quality of its decision-making process and efficiency of policy execution, which make the Chinese state far more responsive to the needs of the people than the Western model, as shown clearly in China's resolute fight against COVID-19. The Chinese model has ensured that most Chinese are beneficiaries of China's dramatic rise, and the country has witnessed the fastest improvement in people's living standards in human history.
The Chinese model is not perfect, but it indeed outperforms American democracy in many ways. For one thing, China's top legislature, as well as the local people's congresses, address issues of direct concern to the general public, from medical insurance to pension to education and environmental protection without the intervention of lobby groups as in the U.S. Congress.
Little wonder then that the Ipsos surveys over the past few years have repeatedly shown that around 90 percent of Chinese think their country is on the right track, more than double the number of Americans or British who think the same about their country.
The Democracy Perception Index 2020 released by Dalia Research showed that 73 percent of Chinese believed their country is a democracy while only 49 percent of Americans believed the United States is a democracy. What an interesting and changing time!
The author is director of the China Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai