Building 'Intra-Party Democracy' in China

Politburo member Li Yuanchao discusses the Mainland's unique approach to political reform in Part I of an exclusive interview

I follow Chinese political philosophy, theory, and practice, especially as formulated and implemented by China's senior leaders. I am also on alert for signs and signals of real political reform. I recently went to Beijing to discern the significance of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the conclave held every five years to establish new policies and promote new leaders. The meeting ended in late October, so enough time has passed for the leaders to assume their new roles.

Through the State Council Information Office of China, I had a private interview with Li Yuanchao, who was promoted to the politburo after his great success during his five-year term as party secretary of high-output Jiangsu Province. A longtime colleague of CPC General Secretary and China President Hu Jintao from their years together in the Communist Youth League, Minister Li is now head of the CPC's powerful Organization Department of the Central Committee, which appoints senior officials in ministries of the central government and in provincial and municipal governments, and senior executives of China's large state-owned enterprises. Li had just published a provocative, controversial article in People's Daily on "Intra-Party Democracy," which elaborated and extended President Hu's call at the party congress for greater democracy.

What should we make of Li's call for intra-party democracy? A great deal. The political philosophies of China's senior leaders, their slogans and watchwords, drive current policies and future directions. I take this view, contrary to many Western China watchers who dismiss these aphorisms as "empty rhetoric," because I have seen their potency in predicting China's political trajectory.

A prime example is President Hu Jintao's "Scientific Development Perspective," which optimizes multiple social, political, and environmental objectives while maintaining economic growth as the primary objective. Added to the Constitution of the CPC at last October's National Party Congress—a major milestone for President Hu—the "Scientific Development Perspective" is the guiding principle for building a "Harmonious Society." It is thereby a benchmark against which high officials are judged.

Serious Slogans, Not "Empty Rhetoric"

When one speaks to high officials, particularly in the provinces, it is abundantly clear that they take these slogans seriously. These local leaders know their careers will depend on how well they implement these policies (not just talk about them). For example, the "Scientific Development Perspective" sets sustainable development as a critical objective and thus marks the evaluation of senior administrators based on measures of efficiency, such as increasing provincial gross domestic product per unit of energy utilization. (I remember a lackluster meeting with a leader of a western province, which suddenly turned exuberant when I inquired how he was applying President Hu's "Scientific Development Perspective.")

Similarly, President Hu's approach to a Harmonious Society stresses economic metrics such as balancing disparities between regions, and includes social support, such as improved and widespread medical care, and political reform, particularly the gradual expansion of people's participation in the process of governance. Economic growth is no longer an end in itself but is now rather the mechanism for "Putting People First," another of President Hu's core slogans that wields policy-directing power.

That political reform is high on the agenda of China's leaders may surprise foreigners, but it follows naturally from "Putting People First" because democracy and individual rights are its natural requirements. This is best expressed currently by another bellwether phrase gaining prominence: "Intra-Party Democracy."

To understand intra-party democracy is to recognize how China's leaders plan to build democracy throughout Chinese society.

Minister Li explained how China's leadership regards intra-party democracy as the cornerstone of political reform because it achieves multiple objectives: it empowers individual party members, increases transparency, subjects higher bodies to the supervision of lower bodies, introduces voting to prevent "arbitrary decision-making," solicits public opinion of candidates, and expands a system of direct elections at local levels. All this would have been unspeakable, unthinkable, until recent years.

I am convinced that on political reform there is now a major shift in how China's leaders think. The process is nuanced and gradual, of course, but leaders are committed to bring about demonstrable change. There is now a real road map, with steps so specific that it would be awkward for China's leaders not to carry them out. Basically, the plan is this: first, to build democracy in the party, and then to expand it into the general populace. By strengthening intra-party democracy, Li says directly, "we pave the way for the people's democracy."

A Leader's Thought Process

Li Yuanchao's background and career path are instructive. Born in Jiangsu Province, he attended college and spent his early career in Shanghai. He majored in mathematics and later earned (on the job) a master's degree in economics and a doctoral degree in law. Prior to running Jiangsu, one of China's most powerful and progressive provinces, he worked in both the State Council Information Office, which is responsible for all international communications, and the Ministry of Culture.

When he was in Jiangsu, he was sent by the Organization Dept. to study at Harvard University in an international training program designed for political leaders. His leadership of Jiangsu was marked by implementing President Hu's "Scientific Development Perspective," where then Party Secretary Li sought social equity by rebalancing incomes and higher quality of life by improving the environment. Both of these goals, he stresses, have to be integrated into the task of achieving the high growth China needs.

It was evening; Li Yuanchao and I met alone. Only translators were with us in Li's new office building. We focused on political reform and I believe it instructive to hear more of his words than my analysis. Westerners should know how China's senior leaders think, and my objective is to facilitate the exposition and understanding of their way of thinking. To this end, my professional team reviewed Li's quotes, both in English and Chinese, making minor wording changes to sharpen translations and improve clarity.

This much I can state with confidence: What follows is what China's leaders want to communicate to the world about political reform in their country. They are committing themselves publicly and internationally to these plans and processes, and this alone carries significance.

In President Hu Jintao's report to the 17th Party Congress he mentioned democracy 61 times. What is the background of this accelerated interest in political reform?

Although the Chinese people are not as wealthy as Westerners, and China lags behind developed countries in many areas such as technology, social system construction, and environmental protection, the Chinese people as a whole are full of confidence in their own national advancement, the country's development, and its promising future. Looking globally, we can say the enterprising spirit of individual Chinese citizens is outstanding. The Chinese people have an extremely high pioneering spirit and a strong sense of national pride, and we are ambitious to build our socialism with Chinese characteristics. The greatest accomplishment of reform and opening up has been the freeing of people's minds, and the liberalization of our thinking, which have been the driving force behind our country's development in the last 30 years. All this helps develop an environment that leads naturally to political reform and the development of democracy.

It is more accurate to say that China's reform and opening up began with political ideas rather than with economic policy.

The very first step was to eliminate the obstacles of 'leftist' ideas which had constrained people's minds. We call this the 'liberalization of thinking.' This was the starting point of China's reform, and it was initiated and led by the Communist Party and experimented and implemented within the party. China's reform began as political reform in the party (at the third Plenary Session of the 11th Party Congress in 1978), not as economic reform in society as many foreigners may assume, The visionary Deng Xiaoping changed the party's mission from focusing mainly on class struggle to developing the economy and enhancing productivity, and to building a wealthy and stronger country. This was a political change.

In the last 30 years, we have had many experiments and explorations. Regarding various reform policies during the process, we had revisions, corrections, and amendments. Though there has been spirited debate in the party as to method and pace, in the last 30 years the only reform that no one has raised any objection to is this fundamental change of the party's mission from class struggle to economic development.

Do you consider democracy a fundamental value?

Like the majority of the countries in the world, we do agree that democracy is a fundamental political value. Indeed, look at President Hu Jintao's work report to the 17th Party Congress and how many times he mentioned democracy. China has been studying and learning the experiences of other countries in building democracy. However we also believe China's democratic development should cater to its own conditions. Regardless of the political system, the people must decide what is in their own best interests.

What kind of political system is in the Chinese people's own best interests? What kind of leaders?

In constructing democracy, we must take into account a country's history and culture. For example, in France, a man may have an open relationship with a mistress and still be elected President. In China, such a man would be barred from holding even a job as chief of a small town. In America, many former presidents were wealthy. In China it's very rare to see wealthy officials. People would first investigate such officials and check the legitimacy of the source of their wealth.

Historically, in China, we have usually used two words to describe good officials or statesmen: Qing Guan and Fumu Guan. Guan means officials. Qing means honest and upright. These good officials don't have many assets, and don't use power for their personal gain. In the U.S. such a person—that is, a person with minimum assets—might not engender confidence. The second word, Fumu, means acting as if a parent. It implies that officials protect citizens as if they were their own children. In the U.S., if a government official administrates like a parent, he might be considered patronizing or have no sense of rule by law.

Therefore, to develop optimum political reform we must take into consideration all of China's characteristics, such as its history and culture, and this includes the road along which we have come since the establishment of New China and the beginning of reform and opening up. This is the road we have walked under the guidance of Marxism.

China's political system may differ from the American system because of each country's different history and developmental model. Even the U.S. and U.K. [Britain] differ from each other for similar reasons. For example, the U.K. has a monarchy, and in the U.S. capital punishment is decided by each state. Hence the American political system should not be used to judge the Chinese political system; it's not realistic and it's not scientific. China has its own ideas and ideals and has every right to choose its own system. We have our own models and goals for political reform, and we will accordingly choose our own roads to reach those goals. We will do what is in the best interests of our people, which certainly includes the development of democracy and the rule of law. Party Secretary General Hu Jintao clearly stated the universal values such as 'advancing democracy and protecting human rights' at the party congress. They are not just values accepted and appreciated in China, but also practiced in reality.

Most foreigners recognize China's tremendous economic development. Yet our achievement in political reform is equally significant and equally important. For several hundred years before the founding of [the] new China, the Chinese people suffered grievously—first from foreign oppressors and then from domestic warlords. The wars never stopped. However in the last 30 years China has been in the most stable period throughout its history, and China has had more peace than it had had for hundreds of years.

In Part II of my exclusive interview with politburo member Li Yuanchao we will discuss the need for improvement in China's political system and the specific steps being taken to build intra-party democracy.