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One of the cruel ironies of today's world is that India which is applauded as the world's largest democracy has the largest number of poor and destitute in any country, and China which has achieved, a steady rise in people's living standards and has also acquired the status of a world power has failed to develop democratic institutions and practices. It is also interesting to note that despite the absence of liberal democratic freedoms the West has a deep fascination with China which is reflected not only in the tourist inflow to China but also in the flow of foreign investment and government good will. Operation of democratic institutions such as free and fair elections, existence of competitive politics and dissent do not particularly attract either Western tourists or Western capital to India. On the contrary the geopolitics of South Asia has been governed by the US and other Western countries as compared by India's pre-eminent position and therefore they have followed by an large a policy of containment of India vis- a-vis its neighbours. The functioning democratic system of India has had little effect on their policy.

The experience of India and China have put the theory of democracy to a severe test. Two old questions need to be asked again about democracy. In addition, two new questions have to be raised.

Do formal political institutions and practices constitute democracy or does it involve appropriate socio-economic conditions which enable citizens to exercise their political rights. On this issue India scores poorly with nearly forty per cent of its people below what is statistically called a "poverty line". China has asserted that it is engaged in creating better living conditions for its people after overthrowing semicolonial and semifeudal domination. Today, however, this dichotomy between economic and political conditions of democracy is seriously questioned. Their mutual dependence is emphasised. Therefore both India and China have to achieve yet more conditions of democracy.

The other familiar question relates to equality and freedom. Western liberal democratic theory asserts the priority of freedom over equality even though the radical stream in liberalism stresses that gross inequalities are detrimental to the exercise of freedom. On this criterion pre-Reform China scored higher marks than India. Social inequalities were reduced in China to a very large extent with the abolition of landlordism and formation of cooperatives and Communes and also takeover of the bourgeoisie owned industries by the state. The wage system was directed towards promoting equality and limiting income differences within the six point grade system. In India too there were a number of measures taken in the early decades following independence to curb monopoly in industry, abolish zamindari system and carry out land reforms. In both the countries the stress on equality declined in the 1980s and almost disappeared in the 1990s. In the past decade or so equality has been a low priority in both China and India. The "equalitarianism", "theory of eating from the iron rice bowl" and such ideas of the Cultural Revolution were severely criticised by the Chinese reformers as being obstacles to the development of the productive forces. The perspective of the present day leadership in China is to "allow some people to get rich first" so that the general level of growth is raised steadily. In India the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme promoted the ideology of profit and the egalitarian programmes of social transformation took the back seat.

The two new issues arise from the great democratic upsurges of the past few decades, namely the social movements such as the women's movements, the environmental movement, the autonomy movement and the human rights movements. One question posed by them is to concretise freedom as freedom from multiple forms of domination so that freedom to realise the potentialities of the human being is advanced. Patriarchal domination continues substantially in all the countries of the world as evident from the deliberations at the Fourth World Congress of Women in Beijing and as documents in the 1995 Human Development Report. China and India have only marginal difference among them. As to ethnic self-determination there has not yet been a scientific measurement. But both the countries have fairly centralised regimes and both have regions manifesting popular discontent. The caste hierarchy and disabilities in India are targets of public attention and social action. There is no comparable social problem in China though new forms of social stratification have emerged in the recent years.

The other issue is response of the modern state to these expanding democratic demands. All ruling elites would like to have an appearance of being popular and responsive to the demands of the various unprivileged groups. And they engage in innumerable measures of legitimation to create a climate of acceptability among the people. Thus the modern state is coercive, responsive and legitimative at the same time. For this purpose it has developed sophisticated systems of management of society, complex methods of propaganda and innovative techniques of manipulation. Today the technology of repression and the vast networks of communication allow the formal democracy to continue while the citizens remain helpless. There is a new authoritarianism in the modern societies including those of the West which make the basic notion of democracy nominal. The tragedy is that while failing on the scores of either political or socio-economic freedom both India and China have fast accumulated the resources of modern authoritarianism. These tools include modern capitalist preoccupation with consumerism promoted through advertisement. Sensate entertainment that commefcialises culture in the global scale on the one hand and building up security forces of all kinds to suppress democratic movements on the other. It is this process which is strengthened by the forces of capitalist globalisation. The alliance of Western capitalists and the native elites has intervened to assimilate the rest of the third world into the Western model of capitalist political economy. The alternatives which the socialist revolutions and the anticolonial struggles had presented have been defeated in course of the battles of the recent decades. The socialist experiments adopted the same economic goals as capitalist systems and failed to promote socialist democracy. The anticolonial struggles such as India's which centred on the comprehensive concept of Swaraj failed to institutionalise after Independence.

The result was the crisis of the state and crisis of development in the third world to tackle which the elites leaned on the West. Thus today on the one hand there is an expanding demand for multidimensional freedom while on the other hand there is a an advancing tide of global hegemony by the capitalist West. The experiments in India and China are caught in this historical conjuncture.

With these comparative notes let us look at the democratic prospects in China.


The Communist Party of China's Perspective on Democracy

Has democracy receded as a goal in contemporary China? In recent years the proclamations of the Chinese leadership have articulated their policy perspective in terms of "reform, development and stability" .The pressures from the Western countries on the human rights issue have had only marginal effects on the course of political development of China. The Chinese communist leaders have frequently asserted that stability in politics and society is an essential condition for China's economic growth and they would not take any risk that might disrupt that process.

Yet development of "socialist democracy" has been reiterated in every session of the National People's Congress (N PC) and also the Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) as an important goal. And above all. the constitution of China declares that the goal is to "turn China into a socialist country with a high level of culture and democracy". This statement constantly accompanies the well known objectives such as "four modernisations", and turning China into a "medium level developed country" by the middle of the twenty-first century. In other words, there is a continuing commitment to promoting democracy in China, but at the same time there is an unambiguous refusal to hasten up the process of competitive politics or expression of serious dissent in China.

To understand this contradiction let us try to ascertain to what extent do contemporary Chinese leaders share the 111 Western notion of democracy.

Having been a product of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the Communist Party of China was bound to uphold the ideal of democracy. After all the favourite slogans of the Chinese intellectuals then were pop promoting "Mr. Science" and "Mr. Democracy." At the same time the Bolshevik Revolution had provided the main inspiration for the foundation of the Communist Party of China and thus had prompted it to challenge the civilizations. China's elite was also looking for its own ways of building a new society. It is this back drop in which we have to understand Mao Zedong's theory of New Democracy. Distinguished from bourgeois democracy of the West and socialist democracy of the USSR it was an anti-feudal, anti-colonial revolution based on the united front of four classes- workers, peasants, petite bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie who constitute "the people" (Renmin). This created a system of people's democracy. It was both a class concept and a mass concept covering some ninety per cent of the population of a society the rest being the enemies.

The nature of the Chinese revolution and the operation of the People's Democratic Dictatorship after 1949 had a common organisational principle, namely, "mass line". It meant "from the masses, to the masses". The revolutionary strategy of the Communist Party of China during the 1937-1949 period relied heavily on the support of the masses and the same approach was sought to be implemented during the period of rural transformation, from land reforms to the People's Communes. People's involvement and active participation were essential aspects of Communist Party of China's political line under Mao Zedong's leadership.

The Cultural Revolution was conceived by Mao as a great experiment in socialist democracy. Masses were called upon to undertake ideological debates and orient all activities towards socialist goals of building an alternative participatory moral- political order serving the interest of the working people. It challenged not only the bourgeois notions of liberal democracy but also the elitist centralised system that had evolved in the Soviet Union since the days of Stalin.

It is the practice of the Cultural Revolution which invited a strong reaction from Deng Xioaping. The mass upsurge during the Cultural Revolution degenerated into conditions of anarchy, large scale and arbitrary persecution and institutional collapse. The Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in December 1978 decided to "change the focus from class struggle to economic construction". Since then the approach to democracy in the Communist Party of China under Deng's leadership has been centred on this. The "one focus" and "two points" framework which governs the policies of the reform period in China has clearly affirmed this line of thinking. The perspective entails that the two points namely (1) "Reform and Open Door" and (2) Four Cardinal Principles have to promote economic development. (The Four Principles relate to adherence to socialist road, leadership of the Communist Party of China, People's Democratic Dictatorship and Marxism Leninism Maozedong Thought).

The contemporary approach of the Communist Party of China to democracy has three components. Firstly, the Chinese state has to continue to be a people's democratic dictatorship where freedoms are allowed within the stipulated terms defined by the Communist Party. Secondly, the basic economic and social conditions of life of citizens must continue to improve as material foundations of democracy. Third, institutions, law and processes of accountability must gradually evolve to enhance the quality of democracy. This perspective carries the class perspective into a new framework of promoting economic development. It has an element of power sharing vertically as well as horizontally especially accommodating the aspirations of minority nationalities.

This perspective is reflected in political practice in various spheres in present-day China. The Tiana'nmen Square demonstrations were crushed by the Chinese armed forces to reestablish the point that the dictatorship had to be maintained to ensure stability. Deng Xiaoping himself called it "a counter revolutionary rebellion". Those who wanted political freedoms in China along Western lines were condemned as proponents of "bourgeois liberalisation". Demonstrations and oppositional activities continue to be banned in China thus inviting strong criticisms from the western liberals that China was yet to develop "civil society".

In the same way the Chinese leaders claim that their concept of human rights includes right to basic needs of life, right to development and right to national sovereignty which are as important as right to freedom of expression and other civil liberties. This is how "stability" is regarded as a necessary condition for economic development. At the same time the Communist Party of China leadership has stressed the importance of building institutions and operating them with regularity and according to procedures. They wish to avoid by all means the anarchy and factional strife of the Cultural Revolution.

Thus the present approach to democracy in China is grounded in the historical experience of last hundred and fifty years since the Opium War. China wanted to get out of the humiliation suffered under colonial domination, so achievement of national honour in the world became a major political objective of all the leaders in twentieth century. All of them wanted to end poverty and destitution in China and build a prosperous economy comparable to the advanced western nations. They also wished to realise "People's rights" or curb feudal and other forms of socio-political domination within the country. Nationalism, Development and Democracy were the three themes which run through the ideas and politics of Sun Yat-sen and his Three People's Principles, Mao Zedong and his New Democracy and Deng Xiaoping and his Theory of building socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Thus democracy is not an isolated principle or ideal. As a system of self determination it is part of an integrated perspective involving values of nationalism, social justice and people's welfare. Democracy is not a mere procedural arrangement of elections and judicial process. It is at the same time connected with socio-economic rights of people. It is this approach which has unfolded concretely in recent policy measures in China.

While the Chinese communist leaders reject the western approach to democracy they are sensitive to certain global trends which uphold democratic values and norms. They cannot ignore the fact that this century has been a century of great democratic upsurge. The anti-colonial struggles, social revolutions and new social movements together have expanded human consciousness and urges for freedom. All countries including the liberal democratic and industrialized countries of the West are restructuring their systems to promote women's rights, rights of minorities, indigenous people, cultural identities, socially oppressed groups such as dalits in India. Besides, institutional guarantees of justice, participatory decision-making and accountability are demanded all over the world. Whereas the western powers would claim to assimilate all these demands within the capitalist framework other voices seek new kinds of democratic transformation that facilitate multidimensional liberation in all parts of the world.

As a part of this process the Chinese leaders have taken a number of steps to promote democratic changes in China during the reform period.

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Democratic Practices

The constitution of People's Republic of China passed in 1975 was replaced by a new one in 1982 which bore greater resemblance with that of 1954. It dropped some of the Cultural Revolution elements and spelt out in detail the composition and powers of national, provincial and local institutions. Since 1978 the National People's Congress has been elected every five years and met annually to discuss the national budget and major policy matters. The Standing Committee of the National Peoples Congress meets almost every month to formulate laws and regulations. During the last fifteen years many laws have been made covering social, economic and administrative matters including foreign trade, taxation and criminal procedure which were left to discretions of Communist Party of China units earlier. Thus institutional functioning has improved considerably in China during the reform period.

Important decisions including appointment of Premier have been put to vote and that Li Peng's reelection as Premier in 1993 was not supported by more than one third of the National People's Congress Deputies, was also part of the published proceedings. Upto the County level the number of candidates has been more than the number of posts thus having an element of choice before the electors. At the Xiang (Township) and Gun (Village) levels there is a three dimensional division of power between Party, the Administration and enterprise management.

The role and status of the non-communist parties has acquired greater significance. The Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee discusses all important policy drafts and gives serious suggestions. There are many appointments upto the Minister and Vice-Governor level from among non-communists. The mobilisation of patriotic forces of China and among overseas Chinese to build a prosperous motherland on a "united front" basis has facilitated this process. The non-communist forces do not treat this "united front" as a communist tactic but as a serious endeavour to build a prosperous China where they also make major gains for themselves.

The Communist Party of China functioning itself has changed its organisational mode. Opponents of Deng's line are removed from office, but not prosecuted as was the case in the earlier years or harassed by political campaigns as during the Cultural Revolution. There is much greater inner-party democracy in the Communist Party of China Politbureau and Central Committee at present leading to many compromise formulations involving Chen Yun (till his death) and Deng. Though Deng has ensured that proponents of his line alone are lined up in the Communist Party of China, People's Liberation Army and the government to succeed him.

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The Prospects

The present-day theoretical framework in China centres around the concept of "socialist market economy" and "building socialism with Chinese characteristics" which were articulated in the fourteenth Congress of Communist Party of China in 1992. One of the characteristics is the role of the state in regulating the market for macro-economic coordination and for achieving socialist objectives of reducing disparities. In other words, firm political control by the Communist Party of China is a basic feature of China's political economy designed by Deng Xiaoping. The successor generation of leadership with Jiang Zemin "at the core", as they put it, seems to be committed to this line of thinking.

Visitors to China who interrogate Communist Party of China cadres on political issues are often told that they have tried to have two guarantees so as to prevent a Soviet type of collapse. One is the legitimacy of the reforms from which practically every household in China has benefitted and which has raised China's status in the world, making Chinese citizens proud of their country's economic achievements. Second is the strict political control and vigilance by the Communist Party of China which ensures stability and peace and concentrate all efforts on economic construction. Such an approach was evident from the assumption of top state, army and party -all in one person, namely Jiang Zemin as Party General Secretary, President of Peoples Republic of China and Chairman, Military Affairs Commission. At lower levels too -as in the Wuxi rural area where I have done field work -in many cun's the Director of a Village Committee and the Secretary of the Party Branch and Manager of the Industrial Company was the same person. This was the reversal of a trend of differentiation of the party and the government from enterprise management which had been operative in the 1980s.

This combination of market economy with political authoritarianism is likely to continue for the foreseeable future in China because of three reasons, two domestic and one external. The two domestic reasons are: First, the policies are popular in1he country for they are raising people's standard of living everywhere. Second, a large measure of consensus exists among the Chinese elites, the victims of the Cultural Revolution who are in pC1Ner and the beneficiaries of reforms, the managers, technicians, entrepreneurs, foreign returned experts. These are the forces who are in control in all spheres including the government, the army and the party. The structure of interests in contemporary China unites politics and economy so solidly that backed by patriotism this elite has a relatively smooth sailing course. The external impetus comes from the business corporations in the Western countries who find it easier to deal with clearcut authorities in authoritarian regimes rather than chaotic situations of conflict as in India. They find great merit in the East Asian model of market economies led by authoritarian regimes as in South Korea. In fact, China is developing close economic relations with the ASEAN countries which is likely to reinforce the present model in its own territory. Above all, the overseas Chinese whose investment in China has been a major accelerator of China's growth have shown more interest in China's economic development and rise as a major world power rather than in her democratic transformation.

This external factor has been unchanged despite the mobilisation of democratic opinion by the exiled Chinese intellectuals after the Tian'anmen episode. Their efforts to link up with dissidents in China and organise support campaigns for human rights have failed to influence either business groups or Western governments. Delinking of the annual renewal of Most Favoured Nation status in trade relations with China by US President Clinton a couple of years ago was an indication of this. The Chinese government makes occasional gestures like post-conviction deportation of Harry Wu earlier. But on the whole, China remains unmoved on its political line.

But such a model has its inherent contradictions. Market economy is considered a canon of liberal democracy in the age of capitalism. In China it may have achieved economic growth but has caused serious social inequalities. If the proportion of income disparity in a village like Hela in Wuxi was 1 : 10 in 1979, it was 1 : 10,000 in 1993 as per the data collected by me. In addition to inter-household inequality the disparity between regions has grown further. Coastal provinces such as Jiangsu and Guangdong are prospering very fast while inland areas such as Shaanxi and Ningxia remain far behind even though they too are developing steadily. The social differentiation among classes is increasing both in rural and urban areas, between rich peasants and poor peasants in the countryside and business persons, managers and ordinary workers in the city. The problem of the unemployed, migrant workers and the floating population is a serious source of social instability and discontent in China.

Yet another source of tension in the polity is the new milieu of competition in profit-making. With autonomy available to enterprise managers they try all possible methods to obtain business contracts within the country as well as from foreign investors. This has led to corruption and criminalisation in large scale. Ideological commitment having receded, the cadres are out to fulfill economic targets in one way or the other. Since 1993 the Communist Party of China has launched a massive campaign to curb corruption with summary trials of corrupt officials and heavy punishments, in addition to making apeals in the name of socialist morality. But still the trend remains unabated.

The culture of consumerism has emerged as a dominant trend in contemporary China. The austerity and simplicity of the Mao era was given up as outdated and an economic constraint on market development. So production and sale of consumer goods was emphasised as a part of the new economic path. This brought into China western goods and services, western life style and cultural practices. The Special Economic Zones may have been a source of much profit-earning for the PRC, but they were also the channels for the introduction of corrupt practices including smuggling and prostitution. The Communist Party of China has from time to time attacked such "cultural decadence" and "spiritual pollution". But it has failed to restrain the tidal wave of westernised consumerism. During the celebrations of the birth centenary of Mao Zedong in 1993 this theme was discussed in many fora. Still the leadership did not wish to stress this theme lest it led to a "reemergence of a left cult".

It is this objective social situation which is bound to lead to political protest and challenge to the prevailing system. Some may do it in defence of the Chinese revolution and legacy of Mao Zedong. Some who are inspired by western liberal democracy may use all opportunities to demand greater political freedom. Yet others while accepting the need for reform in the old style socialist system may challenge the present trend of capitalist development under Communist Party leadership and seek fuller democracy under a humane and participatory socialist system. They may cherish a vision of socialist freedom which secures material, cultural and political conditions of freedom in the course of building socialism. But none of these forces has the strength that can shake up the present regime. With domestic achievements and external support the Deng Xiaoping path for China is going to continue well into the twenty-first century.

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1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher. 

Published in 1998 by 

Gyan Publishing House

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New Delhi - 110 002.