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China Defends Its 'Socialist' Democracy

A white paper rebuffs foreign calls for political reform, saying Beijing sticks to key principles.

October 20, 2005|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — China on Wednesday released a white paper arguing that it does practice democracy, even if not a form understood elsewhere in the world.

The communist regime's first white paper on the topic comes on the heels of a high-visibility speech by Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick last month that criticized China as a single-party state that has made little progress toward democratic ideals.

The Chinese paper was released on the same day Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited an elite Communist Party university in Beijing and urged this nation to become more open, forthcoming and accountable.

In the 12-part report, China says that although its system has room for improvement, it has a "socialist political democracy" that adheres to basic Marxist principles while having distinctive Chinese characteristics.

"China's democracy is a democracy guaranteed by the people's democratic dictatorship," the white paper says.

Beijing in recent years has employed creative semantics such as "democratic dictatorship" to justify its marriage of an increasingly pragmatic economic policy and traditional Marxist ideology.

Despite a raging economy that some have likened to the robber baron days of the late 19th century in the West, China bridles at the suggestion that it has embraced capitalism, preferring instead to label it a "market economy with socialist characteristics." And when criticized on its human rights record, Beijing often argues that human rights are enshrined in its constitution and that raising a nation of 1.3 billion people from poverty is the ultimate human right.

China has adopted limited democracy, allowing elections for many village committees. But villages are technically not part of the government, in the way that a neighborhood association would not be in the West. Furthermore, despite two decades of experimentation, Beijing has not taken the next step and allowed elections in townships, the next rung up, which are part of the government.

"Trial democracy at the village level is necessary and meaningful," said Cao Siyuan, president of the Siyuan Think Tank in Beijing. "But it's too slow. At this pace, it might take 50 years just to get elections at the county level, which does not meet Chinese people's expectations."

Even when they are held, the village elections are subject to political pressure. The village of Taishi in Guangdong province recently attempted to recall its local Communist Party chief amid corruption allegations over a real estate deal. Provincial authorities stepped in, several villagers and reporters were beaten up by unidentified assailants, and the official kept his job.

Analysts say that as communication improves and nongovernmental groups become more active, Beijing is increasingly worried that a successful, high-profile recall in one village will spur a rash of similar demands, quickly threatening the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

On a second front, the government has introduced some limited reforms within the Communist Party for filling low-level party posts, whose occupants are sometimes elected from a slate of candidates. But the vote is open only to other party members, not the general public. Nor is there any public record of vote tallies or the number of candidates involved.

Some analysts say there was more intraparty democracy in the 1980s, when more than one candidate vied for positions on the elite Central Party Committee. But the trend was reversed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown.

Analysts said the Chinese white paper offered little evidence that the new leadership team of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao planned to make political reform a cornerstone of its administration.

The lengthy document offers no timetable for meaningful elections and no mention of political checks and balances or making Communist Party officials subject to the rule of law.

Rather, the analysts said, the document's timing and content suggested its primary aim was to counter foreign criticism and signal that people should not get their hopes up, that political reform would be gradual at best.

Even as an English summary suggests that China can learn from Western democracies, the Chinese version adds that it is "absolutely impossible to blindly follow foreign regimes."

"It's part of the game," said Jean-Philippe Beja, a senior fellow with the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. "They need to stake out their position and show they're not going to go further anytime soon."

China argues that its people are not ready for broader elections, that thousands of years of history can't be changed overnight. "We need time," said Wu Jianmin, president of the Foreign Affairs University and a former ambassador. "At some point things will move on."

Although foreign arguments are relatively easy to sidestep, pressure is increasingly coming from a place the leadership can't ignore: the streets. The government reported 74,000 public protests last year, up from 58,000 in 2003, as disenfranchised Chinese become increasingly angry about government corruption, illegal land seizures and the widening income gap.

Analysts say the administration hopes it can reduce public anger and blunt calls for greater democracy by reducing corruption, increasing rural subsidies, ending agricultural taxes and putting more money in desperate people's pockets, even as Hu imposes stronger party discipline.

Whether Hu can deliver economic benefits fast enough to stem rising frustration remains to be seen, however.

Many people are angry, Beja said, so "it might be successful, it might not."


Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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