Consultative democracy provides approach to more consensual, cooperative international relations (Originally published by Guangming Daily [光明日报; Guangming Ribao] on 28 April 2023)April 28, 2023
Comment by Ivica Bakota
In December 2021, Chinese government published a white paper on its democratic system of governance that heralded “whole-process people’s democracy” and instigated renewed discussions on democracy in China. More than 100 years after the May 4th democratic movement and 73 years since the establishment of the People’s Republic as a people’s democratic dictatorship, Chinese democracy is still one of the most intriguing political systems, attracting praises as well as misunderstandings around the world.
This seems an understandable outcome as since the end of Cold War and break-up of the previous Soviet socialist international order, democracy as a notion has mostly been regarded with liberalist bias. The competitive multi-party democratic model championed by the West and widely accepted by Eastern Europe after the fall of Berlin Wall somehow precipitated dominant status of this model and became a single path towards various democratization waves that happened afterwards. Socialist democracy with emphasis on non-competitive means to optimize people’s participation in political system, address economic inequalities and various social oppressions with the state as the ultimate coordinator of political life mostly disappeared from the list of alternative democratization models. As a result, currently few countries in the world maintain socialist democracy, with one dominant political party at the helm, democratic centralism as operating principle and broad sector of minor political parties and civil organizations participating in decision-making process.
Chinese democratic systems have been particularly scrutinized in the last 30 years as the country underwent some groundbreaking social and economic changes, while the core of its political system remained seemingly intact. It is the backdrop of the country’s miraculous rise from a backward agrarian society to the second largest economy in the world and a global giant that left many asking whether China defied all established development and modernization precepts by retaining a political system that continued to deliver fast-paced progress and new breakthroughs in almost every sphere of society. However, it would be gross understatement to say that Chinese political system remained unchanged all these years. Political reforms China launched in the 1980s in parallel with some other economic and social experiments at the time were reflecting the ambition to find a suitable political framework in order to accommodate unparalleled social undertaking and developmental initiative that became known as the Reform and Opening-up. These changes had to be carefully implemented in order to avoid social disruptions and instability, sometimes encountering resistance, sometimes misunderstandings, but rarely losing the grip over the greater picture of how political reforms should be seamlessly carried out and maintaining broad popular support along the way.
As China’s democracy kept progressing, its external image unfortunately largely remained fixated in the stage when the wind of change swept through Eurasian continent.“Disruptive”perspective on China’s democracy has kept the West apart from Chinese “seamless” perspective ever since, nurturing various “peaceful evolution”, backdoor or market democratization theories oblivious to real political conditions in China. Thirty years after, there is still huge ideological and political challenge in juxtaposing these two perspectives, let alone reconciling or finding a neutral ground for independent discussion.
Under such circumstances, one should examine the novelty that “whole-process democracy” is bringing up. As a matter of fact, the white paper is summing up what in Chinese democracy has been ongoing since at least the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012. The phrase “whole-process democracy” is built around the idea that the people’s participation in China’s democratic system is not only reserved for the ballot box once every few years, but enables Chinese people to “broadly and continuously participate in the day-to-day political activities at all levels, including democratic elections, political consultation, decision-making and oversight”. In short, the Chinese system emphasizes participation “between” electoral cycles and synthesis of some formal aspects of democracy, including “process democracy” and “achievement democracy”, “procedural democracy” and “substantive democracy”, “direct democracy” and “indirect democracy”, and “people’s democracy” and the “will of the state”. All of these aspects define the relationship between the people and the state in a manner that tends to be full-chain, omni-directional and full-covered as opposed to peer-to-peer, top-down and, maybe, promise-dodging as the Western democratic systems seem to look between the elections. Hence the term “whole-process” depicts a system that is not centered on a single event (elections), but instead entails continuous correspondence and consultation between the state and the people, the government and the governed.
If we look deeper into the notion of a “whole-process”, we can find out that many of its features are based on Marxism-Leninism upon which the groundwork of socialist democracy was built. China is a “people’s democracy”, led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants. People’s congresses on grassroots and local levels serve as crucial mediators of people's interests on regional and national levels. Equality, the rule of law, and the accountability of election within this system stem from socialist thought; and, in this sense, the idea of a “people’s democracy” means that the CPC acts as a vanguard party enabling smooth functioning of the democratic system and represents it on behalf of the people.
Nevertheless, the biggest novelty of the “whole-process people’s democracy” is the way China came up with in terms of its own tradition. It is from a perspective of the nation’s long history during which “ancient Chinese began to explore the concept that people are the foundation of a state, and their ideas contained the seeds of what we know today as (Chinese) democracy.” Following the Revolution of 1911, the rise of the New Culture Movement, the New Democratic Revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China learned to maintain a balance between introducing imported political systems and reevaluating political wisdom found in its history.
The consultative nature of China’s democratic decision-making process and essentially cooperative relations between political parties and civil organizations reflect specific development of Chinese society, where cooperative participation in decision-making traces its origins back to Confucius and the concept of harmonious social relations, but the roots of cooperative democracy and the respect for professional merit over partisan competition are to be found in many other Asian societies. Therefore, by tuning the democratic system with l’esprit general of Chinese society, the consultative nature of China’s democracy is conducive to other virtues that are predominately matters of domestic governance and close to principles that can be projected in international relations.
In addition to the theoretical avenues for recognizing the consultative nature of democracy as a basis for democratic international relations theories, there are significant practical advantages in examining this approach for current global relations. Just like consultative democracy is concerned with harmony within society and tends to pursue well-being as a goal becoming as necessary as liberty, in international affairs it also projects global harmony and cooperative interdependence as prerequisite to domestic well-being.
The practical implication of this consultative approach projected into international affairs is in pursuing less prescriptive and more consensual democratic relations between nations. By respecting every state’s full sovereignty and various ways each has maintained security and development along the way, the consultative approach departs from a crude realist perspective to international relations and pays considerable attention to global equality, cooperative international order and, among others, the community of shared future for mankind. Cooperative approach to international relations based on consultative democracy therefore provides the potential for a more consensual multilateralism, gradual and more harmonious amelioration of global order and prudence in implementing necessary changes in global cooperation.
By accepting that every nation has a different development path and laws conforming to its specific conditions, cooperative approach helps to mutually moderate customs and practices in international relations, instead of bringing radical changes under unilateral precepts that destabilize them. As a consequence, cooperative international relations resist any form of peaceful evolution and encourage us to regard the relations in relational sense – from the context of the specific developmental conditions of each nation.
Lastly, consultative democracy applied internationally relies on experiment just like many reform processes espoused in China in the last 40 years. Beyond all application models, China’s democracy, just like its reform process, shows great lesson in fostering the spirit of cooperative experiment not afraid of avoiding ready-made models, caring more for “customized results” instead of theoretical precepts, maintaining “consultative” spirit between various levers of society, instead of bringing sets of fait accompli moves to which society needs to adapt. In times of crisis of all major approaches to international peace, security and democratization theory, cooperative spirit is not only an alternative perspective, but important condiment that could temper zealous ideals and realistic gaps and to forge international relations that will genuinely promote global security and global development.