Intra-Party Democracy Can Bring Real Reforms to China

The 18th Party Congress may be the last time we hear a Chinese leader declare that “China will never adopt western-style democracy.” That’s because Hu Jintao’s call for intra-party democracy — if implemented — is likely to be an irrevocable step toward true democracy.

The outgoing leader’s keynote address at the 18th Party Congress which opened last Thursday is seen by the West as signaling Beijing’s intention to stonewall genuine political reforms into the indefinite future. To the extent political reforms were mentioned at all, they were strictly confined to “intra-party democracy” and accompanied by a caveat against any move toward western-style democracy.

“We will never copy a Western political system,” Hu declared in his speech.

The emphatically negative tone of that statement obscures the far more significant part of Hu’s message: the call for transparency in the selection and supervision of leaders.

What has been glaringly missing from China’s political system more than the rituals of elective democracy is transparency. The lack of transparency in the process by which leaders are selected and laws are passed has made ordinary people feel at the mercy of a sinister secret society, denying them any sense of being able to participate in controlling their own destinies.

At first blush “intra-party democracy” sounds like an oxymoron. How can there be true democracy when only one party is allowed to compete for power? It sounds like jargon meant to lend a half-hearted semblance of legitimacy to one-party rule.

And perhaps it is. But precisely because that seeming jargon has a reassuringly closed ring, it can be the Trojan Horse by which reformists sneak truly democratic institutions and practices into a political system that remains hamstrung by hardline Communists.

Essentially, intra-party democracy would institutionalize and formalize the usual factional wrangling by which China’s leadership currently makes laws and selects officials and leaders. Bringing democratic reforms to that in-party decision-making process would require the factions to set forth their positions in writing. The process of formally verbalizing positions would in turn allow publication and broadcast of the political process to the outside world, including the 1.3 billion Chinese who are not among the 80 million members of the Communist Party.

Transparency would also mean that how each leader or legislator voted on each issue would be recorded and published.

Candidates for leadership posts would be required to articulate their platforms in writing. Those platforms will be published and broadcast, along with analyses of pertinent information including experience, qualifications, voting records and evidence of their character. The adversarial process will ensure publication and discussion of not only official information but also outside information, gossip, rumors and innuendo about candidates through reports and online forums, shining the light of public scrutiny on all party decisions.

One of the most important aspect of such scrutiny would be the possible financial interests and motives behind every vote and decision. That scrutiny would provide a powerful inducement to candidates to be wary of indulging in abuses of power or trading on influence — the widespread corruption that undermines trust in the government.

Even though direct participation in the decisions would be limited to the 80 million party members who make up just 6% of China’s population, the transparency that would follow from formalizing and institutionalizing intra-party democracy would make the the entire population privy to the workings of the government and their leaders. Because the approval of the 94% of the people outside the party is critical to social stability — a key goal in even today’s communist party politics — each faction will be induced to adjust their conduct and policies to seek the legitimacy and moral advantage that comes from the approval of the masses outside the party.

Once winning the favor of China’s population at large becomes a key consideration in the conduct of transparent intra-party democracy, the intra-party factions will have every incentive to frame their policies to win broad-based public support, essentially evolving into the equivalent to opposing parties within full-blown democratic systems. It would then be only a matter of time before the rest of the population is formally brought into the democratic process.

It’s easy for those of us living in societies with full-blown democracy to mock the notion of intra-party democracy. But that odd notion may be the only protective shell that can plant the germ of democracy in the hostile soil of today’s Chinese Communist Party. That germ may take hold far more quickly than may even be suspected by those who have conceived it as the only realistic reform that can move China forward toward a more open, less corrupt society.