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"Bird in a Cage"
-- Elections in Contemporary China

Guo, Gang
Department of Political Science
University of Rochester
April 1999

I. Introduction

Electoral reforms have brought about quiet but significant changes in Chinese elections since the late 1970's. Two of the most important changes are as follows. In 1979, direct elections were introduced to elections of the township and county level people's congresses, and secret ballot and more candidates than deputy seats were required, all by the new election law[1]. In 1987, the "Organic Law on Village Committee" established popularly elected village committees. Put in the context of an authoritarian Communist party-state, these reforms present a lot of questions, such as: to what extent does electoral reform appear to be trivial change or a mere public relations exercise, and to what extent a significant positive political change? This paper attempts to answer this question from two perspectives, first in terms of the extent to which the reforms depart from Lenin and Deng Xiaoping's ideological tenets, and then in terms of the extent to which the reforms incorporate the liberal democratic notion of elections.

II. "Leninism with Chinese Characteristics"

Contemporary Chinese political structure remains a Leninist party-state, characterized by "the effective monopoly of power by a hierarchically organized, internally disciplined, politically correct Communist Party elite"[2]. As to Deng Xiaoping's ideological tenet, currently Deng Xiaoping Theory in the Constitution, Leninism has to be supplemented by Mao Zedong's mass line and Deng Xiaoping's pragmatism. This basic structure of Chinese politics has not been, and will not be, changed by the electoral reforms, or by any of the political reforms in the near future. However, as will be explained below, the electoral reforms of the past two decades, while not contradicting Leninism, are not completely in line with it. On the other hand, the electoral reforms largely reflect the "Chinese characteristics", that is, Mao Zedong's mass line[3] and Deng Xiaoping's pragmatism.

Under the Leninist framework, elections are nothing more than a compulsory endorsement of the decision made by the higher level selectorate, who claim to know better the objective long-term interests of the masses than the masses themselves[4]. In light of this, direct election reflects Leninist tenet only in the sense of mass political participation and "democratic education" on the masses[5], while there is no point in introducing more meaningful and more competitive elections. So the 1979 election law seems to deviate from the Leninist interpretation of elections. What seems to deviate further from that is the 1987 law on village committee elections, since this law implicitly allows for the possibility that the ordinary villagers' preferences be translated into public policy[6]. However, although the introduction of village elections constitute a breach of the basic logic of the Leninist ideology, it does not fundamentally contradict Leninism, at least not on the part of its content. The reasons are as follows. First, village committees are, at the best, on the margin of the Leninist party-state political structure, since villages do not belong to the formal state hierarchy. Therefore village committees as such do not constitute a "threat" to it. Second, village committees are largely not policy-making, but policy-implementing institutions, which further downplays the significance of village elections.

On the other hand, elections in contemporary China better reflect the Maoist "mass line" and Deng's pragmatism. Mao's mass line "means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas)"[7]. In this sense, direct, secret, meaningful, and competitive elections would be an effective means to "concentrate" "the ideas of the masses", although the ultimate control of this process lies with the Party, since it is the Party that initiates the "concentration". Some rudimentary version of this kind of elections already emerged sporadically under the Party's united front policy in the 1940's. In the 1980's, when the traditional means of implementing the "mass line" by close interaction between the cadres and masses gradually became ineffective[8], electoral reforms gives a viable alternative.

Electoral reforms in the past two decades also reflect Deng Xiaoping's ideological tenet of pragmatism, that is, democracy is useful. In a talk in June 1987, Deng Xiaoping asserted that "mobilizing initiative is the biggest democracy" and that "the general goal [of reform] is to help strengthen the socialist system, to help strengthen the Party's leadership, and to help develop productivity under the Party's leadership and under socialism"[9]. Democracy is useful in various ways to achieve these goals. First of all, the electoral reforms at the county, township, and village level introduced democratic mechanisms that would forestall possible political challenges from meaningful oppositions. These elections regularly "produce"(as the Chinese term goes) and single out any prospective political elites with the possible skill, ambition, and mass support to challenge the leadership role of the Communist Party. Through direct, secret, meaningful, and competitive elections these prospective opposition challengers enter the political arena at the lower level, i.e., county, township or district people's congresses, and village committees. Then they are systematically co-opted and brought into the existing political system by the Party through personnel management and recruitment[10]. So democratic elections serve the goal of strengthening the Party's leadership and socialism in the sense that any prospective opposition is brought into the system and play by the rule of the game, which is, of course, set down by the Communist Party. Coupled with coercive means to suppress any organized opposition, democratic elections at the lower levels are, in one sense, employed in a highly instrumental and pragmatic manner to "help strengthen the Party's leadership".

III. Nomenklatura vs. Liberal Democracy

Now we turn to the question: how and to what extent do the elections reflect an acceptance of the liberal democratic notion of elections? From the above analysis, elections in contemporary China are bounded by the "Leninism with Chinese characteristics" framework, and thus the analogy "bird in a cage". Leninism was based on a rejection of the "bourgeois liberal democracy", and Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, of course, cherish nothing sacred about liberal democracy. So at least in theory, it seems that the elections in contemporary China should not reflect an acceptance of the liberal democratic notion of elections as a procedural guarantee of representation. However, in practice, there is, though very small, a certain degree of liberal democratic element of representation observable, especially in up-to-standard village committee elections[11]. To solve this puzzle, it is necessary to look, again, into the Leninist party-state political structure.

The Communist Party's control of the political system is mainly embodied in its formal power of personnel management, or more specifically, on the nomenklatura system. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the nomenklatura system is the foundation of the Leninist party-state political structure. Through this system, any official position of importance is under the control of the higher level Communist Party branch, which ensures that the preferences of the selectorate above, not of the electorate below, will be represented in the public policy making. As long as this system is in place, the formal power of the Communist Party over the government is intact, and the Communist Party is unconstrained by any institutional mechanism making it accountable to people's preferences[12]. Thus far in China, no political reform has touched on this core of the political structure in the post-Mao period. So one of the reasons why in some village committee elections there is sign of village heads accountable to the preferences of the masses is, obviously, that village elections are outside of the nomenklatura system. When the Party felt the need to precaution against social instability and challenges to its authority last year, the "Organic Law on Village Committees" was revised in November to insert, among other things, an article 3, assign the grassroots Party branches with the task of "exerting the function of leadership cores" and of "supporting and protecting villagers' self-government".

IV. "Growing out of the Cage"

From the above analysis, it seems as if the changes brought about by the electoral reforms were just trivial ones. It is true that these reforms have not brought about great changes in the way the political system works, but from a long-term perspective, these reforms are by no means "trivial". As with many other reform measures that the Chinese leaders have taken in the post-Mao period, electoral reforms may produce "totally unexpected"[13] consequences and surprise the Party leadership by the forces that they themselves have unleashed. As reform measures are implemented to various degrees in different localities, they tend to produce rising expectations and spirals of competitive liberalization, thus gaining their own momentum. Finally, in much the same way that the market has been "growing out of the plan", electoral reforms might also be "growing out of the cage".

This scenario is, however, not guaranteed. In the former Soviet Union, citizens had voted directly for delegates to the soviets at all levels in the system since the late 1930's[14], but it's half a century later that they finally see any form of liberal democracy. Part of the reason, as above mentioned, is the tight grip of power by the Communist Party through, among others, monenklatura system. William H. Riker enumerated five institutional restraints to preserve liberal democracy, and limited tenure and regular elections is at the bottom of the list[15]. So it does seem that although the electoral reforms in China during the past two decade constitute a significantly positive political change, some fundamental alterations in the political power structure, especially in the nomenklatura system, are needed at the same time when the momentum of these electoral reforms becomes self-sustaining and leads to even more significant political changes.