Article: Democracy in Mainland China

In Articles, Democracy, Politics & Government by TechnoOwl

Western-Style Democratic system

It is a common perception that there is no democracy in China today and that it is only a republic in name. As China does not practise public elections for the National Peoples Congress and the office of the President. The general public has no direct say in who resides in the central government. However, Western-style democracy is not the only form of democracy, there are other legitimate forms of democracy. In the west, the basic definition of Democracy has been conflated with the notion of the public voting on one of multiple political parties every four years and then each party fighting each other on why they represent the people and why the other parties don’t. In simplistic terms, this makes some sense. But in the real world, it is a lot more complicated with a lot more factors that influence the outcome.

In there very basic form Western democracies are popularity contests. A candidate gives speeches on why they are the right choice, and the public votes based of this. However, the general public is not the only stakeholder in these campaigns, and in some country’s other stakeholders such as the wealthy elite play a vastly outsized role in the democratic process. A 2014 Research study (News Article) by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin found that:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

And this is a common problem for most if not all Western Democracies. As a 2017 [Pew Research Worldwide Survey] found that across the 36 surveyed democracies 52% of people are not too or not at all satisfied with how their nations’ political systems are functioning and 47% somewhat or at all don’t trust their government to do what is right for the country.

With statistics like this, how exactly are Western-style democracies being representative of their populations and being operated for the many, not the few, which is a core concept of democracy? Having elections every four years with the potential to change the governing party gives the public a release valve for if/when public opinion of the governing party gets too low. Because of this, there is no real risk of the governing party going against public desires and passing legislation or doing things the general public doesn’t like because they will just be downgraded to the opposition party and then in another four to eight years get re-elected as the governing party. This, however, is not an option for the Chinese Communist Party which is the only real political party in China. This is why the CCP holds social cohesion/harmony/stability above absolutely all else. There is no release valve for the Chinese public to vote out the CCP, so the government knows that it needs to do what the public wants because if it continually does things to make life hard for the average Chinese, they will be breaking social stability and push the country to a popular revolt. This is an example of why the Chinese government is able to achieve a public trust approval rating of 83.5%, which is the highest of all countries surveyed by the Edelman Trust Barometer (2019 Research Paper) As opposed to the markedly average lower scores of liberal democracies that are supposedly more representative of their population just because they can elect their officials such as Canada (65%), U.S (54%), France (51.5%), Germany(52%), U.K (53.5%) This is also why the 2017 Pew Research Study found that among the democracies that had a growing healthy economy and life was progressively get better, not worse had a higher opinion of their government. Due to this fear of popular revolt because of the lack of said release valve, the Chinese government is actually doing a vastly better job at representing the needs of the general public and being operated for the many, not the few. Which as I said before is a core concept of democracy.

The textbook definition of a democracy: (Oxford Dictionary)

De·moc·ra·cy (Noun)

A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

As an extension the textbook definition of a Republic is: (Oxford Dictionary)

Re·pub·lic (Noun)

A state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.

By this definition, China would be considered a Democracy as in China everyone is eligible to be members of the state and can become the president. As well, contrary to popular western belief, China does have elected representatives. Which we will get into next.

Chinese-Style Democratic System

Local Elections

Direct Elections

To the shock of most people in the West, China does have actual direct elections of representatives. However, unlike in the west where the elections are largely for their highest government officials in China they are for the lowest level officials. They are elected to the Peoples Congress of the lowest level administrative division of the Chinese political apparatus. The definition of the lowest level varies greatly throughout the country though as some regions are more sub-divided then others. The People’s Congresses of cities that are not divided into districts, counties, city districts, towns, townships, and lastly ethnic townships, are directly elected. Whereas cities that do have these subdivisions the directly elected representative would be for the Local Congress of your district, county, or town. The elections happen every five years with anyone older than 18 and no criminal record eligible to vote, making it 900 million eligible voters in 2019. The 2019 elections are staggered through out the year with 2.5 million representatives to be elected by the end of the year. Under the electoral law of 1 July 1979, the nomination of candidates for direct elections can be made by mass organizations, or any voter seconded by at least 3 others, all nominations would be members of the Communist party, similar to how primary elections work. The final list of electoral candidates is determined by the election committee in consultation with small groups of voter focus groups, through a process known as the “three ups and three downs” (三上三下, sān shàng sān xià). Which operates as follows:

• The election committee collects all of the nominations, reviews them for submission compliance, and publishes the list of nominees and their basic details (first “up”). The published list is given to focus groups of electors, comprising the voters in each geographical or institutional electorate for discussion (first “down”);

• The views of the first set of groups of electors are conveyed via group representatives at a committee meeting, in order to reduce the number of candidates (second “up”). The views of different elector groups and the discussions at the committee meeting are then conveyed to voters, and their views are sought (second “down”); and

• The views of the second set of groups of electors are once again collected and reported to the election committee which, by reference to the views of the majority of electors, determine the final list of candidates (third “up”). The list of names and basic details is for the final set of candidates is public published. (third “down”).

During the campaign period, information about each final candidate can be distributed as well as information about the election ballot itself. Elections are done with limited fanfare because western style campaigning is illegal. Candidates can not give speeches promising anything. However, they can go around campaigning why they are the best. Voting decisions are primarily based on past achievements, education, accomplishments, and a resume like information package. Also, the reason why it is done with little fanfare is that an Electoral District a subdivision of an actual City district and is made up of only a few hundred to less than 5,000 people for the largest cities with sometimes 20+ electoral districts in one city district.

Indirect Elections

After the local deputy for an electoral district is voted in, the deputies for their specific local congress then convene on electing their leader in what would be an indirect election for your city district councilor. The selected leader of that city district is now the city councilor for that city district. The city councilors then vote for who will be the mayor of the city. The Mayor then appoints the city government cabinet and this process continues up the chain until you get to the leaders of the provinces. As you go up the hierarchy the validity of the voting system becomes more and more diluted as the selection and promotion process becomes more about work experience, work performance, and political networking. The Department of Organization is among one of the most powerful organs of the Chinese government due to the country’s one-party state meritocracy structure. It is basically like the Human Resources department for the government. It is responsible for more than 70 million party personnel assignments throughout the nation and is responsible for compiling detailed and confidential reports on future potential leaderships within the government. In the past, work performance was largely based on economic growth and poverty reduction among similar indicators. However, in recent years the government has been adopting a more holistic approach to evaluating work performance, such as results on improving health and safety, education, environmental protection, and beautification & tourism in addition to economic indicators. By the time you get to the central government, the voting system is largely a ceremonial formality and all personnel assignments are handled by the Department of Organization which works closely with the Politburo on reviewing individuals’ work track record and performance. Which is a good example of how only the most experienced and skillful politicians get into the higher ranks of the government. Chinese politicians must spend years if not decades gathering governmental work experience as well as getting good at their job so that they look good in their work performance indicators as well as being able to negotiation deals and the politics of governmental promotion. Which we will cover more in The Chinese Meritocratic Technocracy section.


The Chinese People’s Consultative Conference is the second half to China’s legislative system, the other half being the National People’s Congress. Its role is that of an advisory upper house for governmental, legislative, and judicial organs that reviews government actions and receives legislative proposals from deputies across the country. Proposals that are approved by the CPPCC are passed to the NPC to be turned into actual government laws or policies. There are currently 2200 members in the CPPCC from a vast array of people. Anyone can become a deputy, but the position is on a volunteer basis and the selection process is limited. To be selected you will have to already have a history of ambition, and achievements. This does not mean only industry-leading professionals get accepted but for example, local grassroots level deputies have to already have a history of service and volunteer work in their community, any personal awards are beneficial too. All deputies are individuals who have regular day jobs elsewhere. There are 307 seats for civil society organization representatives, and 1357 for sectoral representatives. Sectoral representatives are people who work in fields such as:

• Literature and Arts (142)

• Science and Technology (110)

• Social Science (71)

• Economics (149)

• Agriculture (67)

• Education (113)

• Sports (21)

• Press and Publication (44)

• Medicine and Health (88)

• International Friendship Activists (42)

• Social Welfare and Social Security (37)

• Ethnic Minorities (101)

• Religion (65)

• Hong Kong Dignitaries (124)

• Macau Dignitaries (29)

The idea is that they should monitor their own field and areas of interest, and spend their spare time doing research and come up with suggestions for policy changes. They are not paid for their contributions to the CPPCC, so it must be done in addition to their day-to-day job. They meet once a year for two weeks to discuss policy and during the designated two weeks every March, there are many general assembly sessions. Then there are the group discussions divided into different sections depending on the topic. During the conference the office of the CPPCC is required to give a response to every proposal. This kind of participatory interaction between the government and civil society is something that you don’t see anywhere else. The CPPCC is also the primary way for regular people who don’t want a career in politics to engage with and influence government policies.

The Chinese Meritocratic Technocracy

Definition of a Meritocracy: (Wikipedia)

Mer·i·toc·ra·cy (Noun)

Meritocracy (merit, from Latin mereō, and -cracy, from Ancient Greek κράτος kratos ‘strength, power’) is a political system in which economic goods and/or political power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than wealth or social class.

Definition of a Technocracy: (Wikipedia)

Tech·noc·ra·cy (Noun)

A proposed system of governance in which decision-makers are selected on the basis of their expertise in a given area of responsibility, particularly with regard to scientific or technical knowledge.


China has a long history of being governed by a meritocracy. Ancient China presented the first example of a working bureaucratic state not based on inherited status. The original idea of meritocracy can be traced back to Confucius who “invented the notion that those who govern should do so because of merit, not of inherited status. This sets in motion the creation of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies open only to those who passed tests.” (-Sienkewicz, Thomas J. (2003). Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. Salem Press. p. 434.)

“One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service system existed in the imperial bureaucracy of China. Tracing back to 200 B.C., the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the basis of its political philosophy and structure, which included the revolutionary idea of replacing nobility of blood with one of virtue and honesty, and thereby calling for administrative appointments to be based solely on merit. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position that would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. In part due to Chinese influence, the first European civil service did not originate in Europe, but rather in India by the British-run East India Company… company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism.”

-Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman (2010). Princeton Encyclopedia on American History – p. 142

In addition to this, Plato and Aristotle, advocated for a meritocracy style of government. Plato in his The Republic, arguing that the wisest should rule, hence where his idea that rulers should be philosopher-kings comes from.

Modern China

In modern China, the imperial examination is still practiced today in the form of the Civil Service Exam. Civil Servant jobs are considered highly coveted and esteemed jobs to have in China as the state (State bureaucracy) and government (CCP administration) only select the best candidates. In 2016 over 1 million people participated in the Civil Service Exam vying for only 27,000 civil servant jobs. If you pass the exam, you then take a job interview at which point only 27,000 of those who pass the exam will get a civil servant job. Exam applicants have to answer 135 multiple-choice questions in 2 hours, then 3 hours of essay questions. Within the State bureaucracy, each department and agency have their own Human resources department and draws from the civil service exam to fill it’s rank and file positions. But for the top levels of the state bureaucracy including university chancellors, presidents of national academies, and state-owned organizations promotion and career advancement is left in the lands the Department of Organization. For intermediate level positions within the CCP administration such as Provincial and Municipal level congresses, the Department of Organization works with those Congresses on who is eligible for elections. While higher up the government the Department works with the politburo and NPC on appointing people to positions within the Central government. This appointment procedure happens every 5 years at the National People’s Congress. As of 2019, the last one to take place was the 2017 19th National Congress.

In the past economic performance of your area was the key if not the only indicator of promotion within the government, however, this has diluted since the turn of the century as corruption started to spread and other indicators become more prominent. In recent years as I’ve said before the government has adopted a more holistic approach to work performance evaluation with things like results in poverty reduction, improving health and safety, education, environmental protection, and beautification & tourism in addition to economic indicators playing a larger role in determining a person’s promotion eligibility. Recently, the Politburo has mandated that all promotions within the government rank and file and leadership positions must pass through a corruption background check from the National Supervision Commission and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection before any promotion can be approved as well as a loyalty test to socialist ideals.

As well as work experience and performance, education in the technical and science fields are considered highly important to Chinese politicians. Many but not all have dual degrees in law and a technical field. For example, In a survey of the mayors and governors with 1 million or more people in China 80% of them had a technical background in their education. Xi Jinping has a Chemical Engineering Degree from Tsinghua University.

Other Notable academic backgrounds of the Politburo Standing Committee:

Li Keqiang has a PhD in Economics from Peking University and his doctoral dissertation was awarded the Sun Yefang Prize, China’s highest prize in economics.

Wang Huning has a postgraduate degree in International Politics and Law from Fudan University. He also, become the youngest law professor in Fudan University history in 1985 at the age of 30.

Han Zheng Has a master’s degree in economics from East China Normal University.