All-Out Defense of “Chinese-Style Democracy” Exposes Cracks in Xi Jinping’s Armor

A local election polling station in Chongqing's Shapingba district on December 6 (Source: China Daily)

In the run-up to the U.S. “Democracy Summit” hosted by President Joe Biden on December 9-10, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pulled out all the stops to convince the world that China’s “whole-process democracy” (全过程民主, quanguocheng minzhu) is superior to the democratic ideals championed by the United States and its partners. The White Paper on Democracy issued by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) and other documents published by party and government units claim that the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) “whole-process democracy” has realized the “processes of democracy and the fruits of democracy” (SCIO, December 4). The White Paper avers that in China there is a “synthesis between the people’s democracy and the will of the state,” and asserts that Chinese democracy is “the most comprehensive, most realistic, and most effective socialist democracy” (China Daily, December 8; Xinhua, December 4).

A Double-Edged Sword?

Despite the outward projection of confidence, the assertion that Chinese-style socialism is superior to representative democracy could boomerang on the CCP’s so-called “leader for life”, President Xi Jinping (China Brief, November 12). According to the State Council White Paper, a key criterion of whether a country’s political order is democratic and effective is “whether a country’s leadership echelon can orderly replace itself according to law.” However, Xi’s revision of the constitution in order to abolish term limits on the state presidency – as well as the disproportionate magnification of his contributions to the party in the recently released Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century (hereafter Resolution), indicates that the supreme leader may not have a leadership rejuvenation plan at all.

The contrast between the CCP’s rhetoric and reality is illustrated by a recent talk given by Politburo member and head of the party’s Organization Department Chen Xi, wherein he contended that age is not the most important factor in finding successors to the current leadership. Chen, a longtime Xi protégé, said party authorities should not select potential successors “just because of their [young] age.” “The selection is not about the younger the better,” added Chen, who argued that “political loyalty” was the most important criterion. “Political loyalty” has been widely interpreted as fealty to Xi (SCMP, December 3, China Times, December 1). This is evidenced by the fact that the Resolution and other documents have emphasized values such as “the two safeguards”(两个维 护, liangge weihu), a reference to upholding Xi Jinping as the “core of the dangzhongyang 党中央 [central party authorities]” and “safeguarding the authority as well as the concentrated and united leadership of the dangzhongyang” (People’s Daily, December 3; Xinhua, January 21). The lack of a well-thought-out succession mechanism to the party’s “core for life” could lead to fierce factional in-fighting when Xi’s health or grip on power begins to falter (China Brief, November 12).

The recent spate of papers and speeches eulogizing Chinese-style democracy also zero in on the fact that the great majority of Chinese take part in choosing grassroots-level legislators. For example, an early December document prepared by the Legal Work Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, claims that 97.18 percent of Chinese over 18 years of age are registered voters for People’s Congress polls in counties and villages as well as districts of cities. The document also asserts that voter turnout is consistently over 90 percent. However, the Legal Work Committee also points out that the NPC system “upholds the leadership of the CCP” and that Chinese politics revolves around the principle of the “synthesis among party leadership, the people being masters of the country, and administration according to law” (NPC.gov.cn, December 7). Furthermore, it is well known that to ensure “party leadership,” eligible candidates for grassroots-level elections – who are almost all CCP members – must secure the imprimatur of local authorities. In October, 14 Beijing-based human rights lawyers and their relatives failed to stand as candidates in legislative elections in different districts of the capital and nearby counties due to their lack of CCP credentials (Deutsche Welle Chinese, October 18; VOA Chinese, October 17).

Growing Global Pushback

A day before the US-led Democracy summit, the CCP Central Committee’s Institute of Party History and Literature published a new volume of Selected Excerpts from Xi Jinping on the Respect and Protection of Human Rights (习近平关于尊重和保障人权论述摘编, Xi Jinping guanyu zunzhong he baozhuang renquan lunshu zhaibian). The new anthology seeks to make the case that the CCP has consistently strove to “integrate the principle of human rights with China’s reality by embarking on a path of human rights suited to national conditions” (People’s Daily, December 8). However, just days later, a dozen odd dissidents and human rights activists including world-renowned lawyer Guo Feixiong, were either detained or prevented from leaving their residences (CNA.com.tw, December 10; Deutsche Welle Chinese, December 10).

Despite its efforts to portray itself as a world leader on human rights, the PRC’s poor record of respect for individual rights has not escaped condemnation. A stern statement by the European Council condemned the deplorable human rights situations in China and other authoritarian states. A number of Western countries including the U.S., Canada and Australia also cited the PRC’s ill-treatment of the Uighurs minority as justification for not sending officials to the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, which will be held in February 2022 (Consilium.europa.eu, December 9; Hong Kong Free Press, December 7).

Indeed, the recent criticism of the PRC’s human rights record by democratic countries is significantly different from past choruses of international condemnation. The Biden-led coalition made it clear during the Summit of Democracy that greater pressure would be put on the PRC in the form of economic and technological sanctions. The U.S. President said the democratic bloc was committed to shaping “the rules of the road that are going to govern our progress in the 21st century, including on issues of cybersecurity and emerging technologies” (The White House, December 10). More bans are being imposed on PRC entities suspected of being part of China’s defense-industrial complex. During the Democracy Summit, Washington announced that no U.S. capital would be invested in SenseTime, an IT company specializing in facial recognition that is associated with the repression of Uighurs. This followed a joint decision by the U.S. and EU authorities in September to prevent China from securing components or accessing supply chains in the semiconductor sector, along with agreement to enhance cooperation on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and digital privacy (Nikkei Asia, December 9; Bangkok Post, September 30). This intensifying effort to decouple the Chinese and Western systems occurs as the PRC economy is battling strong headwinds. The Chinese economy is burdened by a severely debt-laden property sector, growing unemployment, stagnation in consumer spending, foreign manufacturers leaving China due to cost and other reasons, and shrinking government coffers as evidenced by hefty cuts in the salaries of civil servants in several provinces and major cities (Radio Free Asia, December 9; VOA Chinese, October 13).

Due to the state’s tight control of the media in China, most official news outlets have condemned Washington’s Democracy Summit as well as statements by Western countries denouncing the lack of citizens’ rights in China. Yet it is possible that ordinary Chinese may feel unhappy over how the CCP’s “anti-Western” policies might negatively affect the domestic economy and lower their standards of living. Moreover, at least among well-educated intellectuals, voices calling on the CCP leadership to adopt international norms, including “Western-style” constitutional governance have also become more vocal. For example, Zhang Qianfan (张千帆), a respected law professor at Peking University, recently slammed the authoritarianism of the CCP in a classroom talk. He noted that global experience had proven that “a kind of cunning and stubborn authoritarianism” often comes in the wake of revolution. He also accused the Chinese government of suppressing the wages of workers and over-exploiting the country’s resources. “Only if each individual dares to assert his dignity can the Chinese really become masters [of their nation],” he explained (Zhang Qianfan Youtube, December 2).

A Blow to Xi’s Prestige?

Moreover, the Western world’s growing willingness to boycott China could begin to have a detrimental impact on President Xi’s prestige and authority. Analysts are surprised that after the release of the Document on party history, which uses hagiographic language to glorify the strongman’s spectacular exploits – only a relatively small number of regional and PLA leaders have taken up the tradition of biaotai (“express fealty in public”) to sing Xi’s praises. The party bosses of Tianjin and Shandong, Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠) and Li Ganjie (李干杰) are among the few provincial party secretaries who have pledged their loyalty to the supreme leader. For example, in a talk to college students, Li Hongzhong praised Xi for “coordinating the strategy of the great renaissance of the Chinese nation… and solving many long-standing problems that have not been resolved” (Tj.news.cn, December 6; Study Times, December 4). Top generals also appear largely reticent when it comes to the Resolution and Xi’s historical position. In a study session on the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee organized by the Central Military Commission (CMC), the two CMC Vice-chairmen, Generals Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia seemed to be merely going through the motions in seconding Xi’s leadership. Each Vice Chairman’s pronouncements of fealty amounted to merely 150 words or so, which is much shorter than the usual word counts for ritual biaotai (Xinhua, November 22).

Even more intriguing is a December 9 People’s Daily article entitled “The Reform and Open-door Policy was the party’s great awakening,” which amounts to a pro-reformist explication of the Resolution. The author Qu Qingshan (曲青山) is the Director of the Party History and Party Archives Research Academy of the CCP Central Committee. Using the Resolution as the point of departure, Qu lavished praise on Deng Xiaoping’s “profound understanding of socialist revolution and socialist construction.” He quoted the Great Architect of Reform as saying that the leftist excesses of the Cultural Revolution had convinced him that “it won’t do if we do not undertake reform and establish new policies in the political, economic and social [arenas].” Qu added that the great awakening precipitated by Deng’s reform “has demonstrated the people’s vivid realization of [the task of] creating history.” The author also praised former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao for developing Deng’s market-oriented theories. The entire essay does not mention Xi even once. Nor was there any reference to the vaunted “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” (People’s Daily, December 9) in the piece. That an article that belittles Xi’s accomplishment could be run in the People’s Daily is an indication of a vast difference of views among senior cadres regarding the paramount leader’s contribution to CCP history. Similarly, neither Xi’s name, nor Xi Jinping Thought are mentioned in another official piece explicating the importance of the Resolution. Like the essay by Qu, the Xinhua article, entitled “Write a new statement of the new-era reform and open-door policy from a higher perspective,” merely chronicled the progress made by the reform and open-door policy in different parts of China (Xinhua, December 10).

At the same time, Xi’s control of the political-legal (政法, zhengfa) apparatus (the police, secret police and judicial departments) has continued to be cast in doubt by the repeated replacements of senior cadres in the Ministry of Public Security. In 2018, then vice minister of public security and head of Interpol Meng Hongwei (孟宏伟)was arrested. This was followed by the downfall of another vice minister of public security Sun Lijun (孙立军) in 2020. Both Meng and Sun were accused of committing economic crimes and organizing anti-Xi “conspiratorial cliques” within the internal security hierarchy (BBC Chinese, October 3; People’s Daily, September 30). Even more stunning was the detention last October of yet another former vice-minister of public security Fu Zhenghua (傅政华), who had had an illustrious career in the zhengfa system. Fu was considered a Xi protégé due to his role in bringing down the latter’s bitter foe, former Politburo Standing Committee and head of internal security Zhou Yongkang in 2014 (The Initium, November 5; Radio French International, November 5). Last month, Xi signaled that the purge of the zhengfa system had not ended by appointing Executive Vice Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong as Head of the CCP Committee of the ministry. Wang, who first worked with Xi when the latter was vice mayor of Xiamen in the mid-1980s, is considered a key member of the Xi Jinping Faction (HKOI.com, December 1; Radio French International, November 20). Wang’s rise could mean that the incumbent Minister of Public Security and former head of the ministry’s party committee Zhao Kezhi, who is deemed close to his former deputies Sun and Fu, might be removed in the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

For the first time in history, Western and pro-democracy countries have used China’s abysmal human rights record as justification to levy sanctions and other forms of punishment on the PRC. While most of China’s dissident and activist NGOs are under police control, Xi’s apparent failure to mend fences with the U.S. and other leading EU and NATO members could be leveraged by his opponents to counter the paramount leader’s push to achieve lifetime tenure.

The lengths to which members of the Xi faction have gone in lionizing their boss could also backfire. Take, for example, the essay by the Vice-Head of the Department of Propaganda Shen Haixiong exalting the greatness of Xi. Shen, who worked for Xi when the latter was party secretary of Zhejiang Province, said the supreme leader is a “great statesman, thinker and strategist” who abides by the dictum “I shall become selfless so as not to let the people down.” Shen further claimed that Xi has in recent years “turned the tide [of national politics] and prevented the big mansion [of state] from collapsing” (挽狂澜于既倒,扶大厦之将倾, wan kuanglan yu ji dao, fu dasha zhi jiang qing; CCTV Net, December 8). Shen’s characterization of Xi as a “selfless” cadre seemed a back-handed way of putting the spotlight on his lust for power. And by saying that Xi has “prevented the big mansion [of state] from collapsing,” Shen appeared to imply that the PRC was about to give way due to its apparent failure to meet multi-pronged challenges. In sum, the Xi leadership’s frantic defense of the national record on human rights and other issues – plus the “core’s” paranoia about losing his all-embracing authority – has betrayed signs of malaise that permeates the CCP’s top echelons.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor in the History Department and Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of six books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in 2020.