Guo Weimin, spokesperson for the fourth session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), speaks to the media during a press conference on March 2, ahead of the annual session of the main advisory body Politics. Photo: CGV
Both China sessions are in full swing, however, “no effort is being made [in the West] to explain the complexity of China’s governance systems,” said Sourabh Gupta (Gupta), a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-American Studies. Gupta said cartoonish stereotypes perpetuating the idea that “two sessions are a rubber stamp” run deep in the West, and Western media are happy to give full play to this cartoon. Where does such a misunderstanding come from? How to understand Chinese democracy by observing the two sessions? Gupta shared his views with Global Times (GT) reporters Yu Jincui and Lu Yuanzhi.
GT: The two sessions, one of the most important annual political events in China, are seen as a window to observe China’s development and the practice of democracy with Chinese characteristics. What do you expect from the event this year and how do you see its significance for China’s future development?
Gupta: Both sessions (and the 20th CPC National Congress later this year) are taking place during an extremely important phase of China’s national economic development. In the short term, China is considering a thoughtful path to the next stage of management, and then at some point, exiting from COVID-19 restrictions. The economic “reform and opening up” choices China makes today, including those of the two sessions, will determine whether China will be a country without economic peers in the international system in the middle and second half of this century. , just like the United States was in the 20th century. And so, I expect that while China’s leaders will exercise caution in providing short-term fiscal support to the economy in 2022 to deal with the dislocations of the virus and the political and economic fallout from the conflict in course in Ukraine, they will have their sights firmly set on the broader socialist modernization goals of 2035 that were confirmed at last year’s two sessions as part of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan.
GT: Some Westerners and some Western media often refer to the two political sessions as a “rubber stamp”, which you disagree with. What misunderstanding do they have two sittings? Where does this misunderstanding come from?
Gupta: The central misunderstanding that Westerners – who have had no substantial contact with China – have is their belief that the country is run by a self-selected coterie of two dozen individuals who issue instructions from a high tower , and everyone below simply clicks on their heels and falls as instructed. It sounds almost cartoonish, but the stereotype runs deep in the West, and the Western media are happy to give full play to this caricature. No effort is made to explain the complexity of Chinese governance systems. And this is done to accentuate, in part, the divisions between the Chinese and Western political systems and reinforce in the process that the only political system that can succeed is one that resembles theirs.
What Western views lack, however, is the intense, horizontal and vertical, multi-level push and pull of the Chinese government during preference aggregation and decision-making, as well as the depth of consultation within the system, especially in the course of the deliberations of the NPC Standing Committee. It goes without saying that a sophisticated $17 trillion economy of 1.4 billion citizens cannot be run on the basis of a central command by a minority tightly seated at the top. And if evidence of the depth of top-down and bottom-up buy-in was needed, Westerners should study the well-established framework of fine-grained local governance, filtering from city to district and of the community, which has been so instrumental in successfully containing and eliminating the COVID-19 virus.
GT: Chinese democracy is integral people’s democracy, and the two sessions are a vivid example of how the whole process of people’s democracy works. How do you understand the whole process of people’s democracy? Compared to Western-style democracy, what do you think is the biggest difference?
Gupta: Democracy is representative government in which supreme power belongs to the people but is exercised on their behalf by a representative institution. As such, democracy requires a system of representation that is consultative. In the Western tradition, this system of consultation takes the form of periodic elections to test the strength of the public mandate of the government in place. Along with this, there is ample room for political speech, as long as it is expressed peacefully and does not border on harassment or obstruction. In China, the preference aggregation system is much more centralized and hierarchical – although nonetheless consultative. For almost all Westerners and most non-Westerns, the absence of public elections is seen as a disqualifying factor from being considered a democracy.
That being said, the democracy that is practiced in the United States has attracted some discredit due to the lack of civility in political discourse. Political gain is sought by driving differences between voters on polarizing issues rather than by serving the well-being of voters. And to the extent that the “voters” are served, they more often tend to be financial interests or politically connected interest groups with narrow agendas, rather than the secular electorate as a whole. U.S. Supreme Court rulings to open the floodgates and subsequently legitimize the flow of corporate money into federal politics have also had a terrible impact on honest, uncorrupt, common-sense governance. . This made systemic changes much more difficult to achieve within the system’s safety barriers.
On the other hand, China has been well served by a more tightly controlled political system that has allowed the state to enjoy a degree of autonomy from society in order to telescope many socio-economic reforms into a remarkably short period of time. The system works well for policy at a relatively early stage of national development. China will undoubtedly become much more powerful in the years to come, but managing domestic power dynamics will politically become an increasingly complex proposition.