In the PRC, democracy refers to the Marxist-Leninist system of democratic dictatorship (人民民主专政) and democratic centralism (民主集中制), in which the CCP is the ultimate representative of the peoples. This political system of “socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics” is explicitly distinguished from Western liberal democracy, which is seen as incompatible with China’s unique conditions.
While citizens in China can vote for their local representatives, the CCP is constitutionally defined as the sole ruling party, preventing any transfer of power. It has guiding power over all legislative and state organs, allowing top-down policy implementation. Despite the lack of a pluralistic system of political parties, in which access to power is based on periodic elections by universal suffrage, the party defines itself as inherently democratic. Through “consultative democracy” (协商民主), the CCP formally incorporates the interests of various social groups, but legitimacy is mainly derived from ensuring order, prosperity, and security. Emboldened by successes in the delivery of economic growth and most recently of public health, the Party-State increasingly presents this as the superior model internationally. As Xi Jinping stated in 2017: “China’s socialist democracy is the most comprehensive, genuine and effective democracy”.
Rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology, the Chinese term “democracy” (民主) has been deeply embedded in party language since the founding of the CCP, which set itself the mission to build a “people’s democracy”. In 2019, Xi coined the term “whole-process democracy”, in which the CCP gathers all voices from within and outside of the party, “enabling people to exercise their right to be masters of the state”.
The conceptualization of China as a democratic state has three pillars:
The CCP is democratic, hence China must be too. Under “democratic centralism”, major policy decisions are taken by central party organs, but are discussed at all administrative levels in formalized “democratic life meetings”. New work regulations define the “center” even more clearly and prescribe Xi Jinping Thought as the baseline, thus restricting divergence from central ideological guidance. Chinese citizens can vote. Article 2 of the Constitution allows citizens to elect delegates to People’s Congresses, China’s legislative organs, on the county and district levels. However, Articles 1 and 3 make it clear that the PRC is a socialist state under the sole leadership of the CCP, whose hold on power was further strengthened in the 2018 constitutional revisions. All government institutions work under the guidance of CCP organs, and candidates for people’s congresses are generally pre-selected.
The CCP considers other stakeholders and interests. Formally, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conferences serve as the main channel for consultative democracy. Under the label of multiparty cooperation with eight democratic block parties and gathering of feedback, including online, the CCP does solicit opinions from various stakeholders, as long as they do not openly contest the CCP’s policy priorities.
This collective and consensus-oriented ideal of democracy under centralized party leadership is juxtaposed to the confrontational, competitive style of Western democracy. Although now presented as the only suitable system for China, it has not always gone uncontested. The 1989 student protests called for a reform of the Chinese political system, including elements of liberal democracy. In the aftermath of this movement, the term largely disappeared from political debates in China.
In 2002, the 16th Party Congress included the statement that “inner-party democracy is the life of the party”. Leading party thinkers brought the concept back into play. Though limited to a vision of democracy that is compatible with one party rule, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, officials, media and citizens publicly discussed strengthening inner-party democracy and liberalizing local elections so as to allow a pluralism of positions and include more non-party members. Independent candidates stood for election and had some success. In the 2011 local elections, pro-civil rights candidates attempted to enter the race under the motto “One person, one vote, together we change China”.
After Xi rose to power in 2012, “democracy” was included as one of the 12 core socialist values. However, this did not mark a more liberal conceptualization of democracy. Experiments in participation were shut down, and independent candidates were arrested. In 2013, Document No. 9 defined liberal democracy as a threat to regime stability. Concepts such as constitutional democracy, separation of powers and judicial independence are regularly dismissed as “incorrect ideological thinking” that must be met with resolute resistance. Liberal values were recently characterized as the root cause of unrest in Hong Kong. At the same time, China is advocating a “democratization” of the UN system, which means a bigger say for countries from the Global South, though it also entails equal acceptance of authoritarian forms of governance and values.
This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.