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CCP rediscovers democracy, at 90
By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - On July 1, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will celebrate its 90th birthday. For a human being, 90 years is a long life. In Chinese history, 90 years is the blink of an eye.
As official preparations go into full gear, the propaganda machine is busy glorifying the CCP's "greatness" in leading the Chinese people to one victory after another. The main aim is justifying the legitimacy of the CCP's continuous rule, in hopes that it will continue for a long time - eternally if possible. But do past successes justify future legitimacy? In Chinese history, the answer is no.
The Middle Kingdom's history of ruling dynasties was summed up poetically by the 14th century Chinese writer Luo Guanzhong at
the beginning of his great historical novel, Romance of Three Kingdoms: "All under heaven [China], after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since antiquity."
In essence, this means a dynasty that rules the whole of the Middle Kingdom with centralized power will sooner or later collapse (often because of official corruption and/or the imperial court's loss of control on the regions) and be replaced by a new dynasty that defeated other contenders for "all under heaven" after a period of separation, chaos and war.
The founding emperor of the new dynasty then agonizes over how to escape the fate of the previous dynasty, so his rule can be passed onto his offspring, one generation after another for "10,000 years".
Despite their best efforts, no dynasty in written Chinese history ever achieved this, with none lasting longer than 300 years. This gave rise to the ancient Chinese saying that "One takes turns to become the emperor, and this year it might be my turn." And this vicious circle characterized China's entire 2,000-year history of feudal dynasties.
The last dynasty in Chinese history, the Qing (1644-1911), was overthrown by the 1911 Revolution led by Dr Sun Yat-sen and his Kuomintang (KMT). The Republic of China (ROC) was then founded, ending China's history of dynasties but not seemingly the vicious circle of rule, overthrow and revolt.
The ROC government led by Sun's protege Chiang Kai-shek was in 1949 forced to flee the mainland by communist troops led by Mao Zedong, occupying the island of Taiwan. Mao then founded the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Years before successfully seizing "all under heaven", Mao had pondered hard on how to avoid the traps of history. In 1944, the pro-communist writer Guo Moruo wrote an essay analyzing the tragic ending of Li Zicheng (1606-1645), a shepherd who led a peasant uprising to overthrow the Ming Dynasty and rule China briefly as emperor of a short-lived dynasty - Da Shun. In Yan'an, the center of the Chinese communist revolution from 1936 to 1948, Mao ordered the essay reprinted and distributed to high-ranking communist cadres, saying "We reprint Guo's article with the purpose for our comrade to draw a lesson, so as not to repeat the [Li Zicheng's] mistake of becoming inflated with pride after victory."
At about the same time, when asked by a well-known non-communist scholar visiting Yan'an whether the communist party would be able to break the historic "vicious circle", Mao said "I think we have found the solution. That is democracy. With democracy, we won't 'follow the tracks of an overthrown chariot'."
By no means in Mao's mind did "democracy" mean allowing the people to choose their government with a "one person one vote" system. Rather, he planned a Soviet-style "democracy" with Chinese characteristics. This was evident in the concept, "People's Democratic Dictatorship", which was incorporated into the PRC constitution he drafted.
In a "People's Democratic Dictatorship" the CCP, as vanguard of the working class and hence of the people, would hold power. However, at the same time it would allow friendly political forces to participate in government - within limits. Also to avoid major policy mistakes and corruption, mechanisms would be established within the party. For this purpose, party members were free to speak their opinions and choose leaders in some form of election.
When the PRC was founded, this "democracy" was more or less put into practice. There were elections, pre-arranged or not, within the party. The party also invited the leaders of non-communist parties and social dignitaries to take senior posts in the central government. For this purpose, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference was formed to act as the parliament.
Unfortunately, it was Mao himself who betrayed his own beliefs. Several years after the PRC's founding, there was increasingly loud criticism of CCP rule. So Mao launched once political campaign one after another in the mid-1950s to silence dissenting voices inside and outside the party, with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as the climax. In the end, Mao became a God-king like dictator, practically abandoning whatever remaining elements of his concept of "democracy".
Mao could do so because he was respected as the leader of a successful revolution. In Chinese tradition, he who fights "on horseback" to win "all under heaven" automatically gains unchallengeable legitimacy to rule. Hence, while his political campaigns caused many deaths and at least twice brought China to the edge of bankruptcy, party officials and people in general remained obedient. Deng Xiaoping was a veteran general under Mao in the fight for "all under heaven". As such, his legitimacy to continue ruling the party and the country after Mao's death met little challenge. With his authority, Deng could push forward his reform and opening up, as well as designate his successor and the successor of his successor - the former president Jiang Zemin and current President Hu Jintao. It may be said that Jiang and Hu inherited their legitimacy from Deng.
But it can be said that from Jiang onwards, no CCP leader has the authority to personally handpick his successor, because he himself has never fought "on horseback" and he has not earned, but been granted, the legitimacy to rule the party and country. Under such circumstances, he alone is not entitled to legitimize someone chosen as his successor. In other words, after Deng, the party leader can no longer can handpick his successor. Hu's successor, Xi Jinping, was widely reported to have been chosen by a collective decision, a compromise reached by party factions.
There are two kinds of legitimacy: one is needed to rule the party and another to rule the country. The CCP as a whole is no doubt concerned with its legitimacy in continuing to rule the country. But logically it has to first solve the problem of how to legitimize someone to rule the party. A new mechanism had to be established for the selection of the party leader. The CCP seems to have rediscovered the solution of Mao's idea of "democracy".
This issue becomes increasingly urgent given the fast expansion of the CCP. According to the party's Central Organization Department, the party had 80.27 million members by the end of 2010 - or at least one out of 10 Chinese aged 18 or older. This certainly helps consolidate CCP rule. Given its huge size and penetration into all social sectors, there is no other political force strong enough to challenge CCP rule of the country. As long as the the party remains united and adapts to social change, its rule is unlikely to be challenged from the outside.
But the challenge may come from within. The more members of an organization, the more different voices there are. Many members are from social elites representing different interests of various social sectors, each will fight for the interests they represent. The party is no longer a group united by a single ideal, but a collection of people representing different social sectors.
In short, the CCP now is the epitome of Chinese society. This determines that any decision made by the party must be a result of careful considerations to balance different interests. This also determines that party leaders must be acceptable to the majority of party members. To this point, the introduction and development of democracy within the party becomes somewhat inevitable.
Hence, while the party's propaganda machine is gearing up to rationalize the party's legitimacy to continue ruling China, democratization is quietly in progress inside the party.
Before the party holds its 18th National Congress next year, local party organs are holding assemblies to select new leaders. In the past, delegates to such party assemblies were mainly appointed by superior party organs. But this year, in many places, a certain percentage of deputy position are being competed for by party members. Moreover, in places such as Laibing city of Guangzi province, party chiefs of townships are now being directly elected by their party members. Jiangsu province is even experimenting with "restricted democracy" in the selection of party secretaries for three municipalities - Wuxi, Nantong and Suqian. In each city, several candidates will be nominated by the provincial party committee for the municipal party assembly to pick up one through election. While this is not full democracy, it is a big step toward it compared with the past.
Political analysts in China are closely watching the process. There is growing optimism of more "democracy" in the selection of delegates to the 18th party congress, such as allowing a certain percentage of delegates to be directly elected by party members. And in the election of the new central committee at the 18th congress, there may be more candidates for the delegates to choose from.
It seems "bottom-to-up" democratization inside the CCP is quietly taking place. Changes would happen at the grassroots then gradually spread to higher levels, just like the economic reform and opening up in the past three decades.
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