Two sessions show China’s political system serves national development
Published: Mar 09, 2022 05:00 PM
Guo Weimin, spokesperson for the fourth session of the 13th National Committee of the?Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), speaks to media at a press conference on Wednesday, ahead of the top political advisory body's annual session. Photo: VCG

Guo Weimin, spokesperson for the fourth session of the 13th National Committee of the?Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), speaks to media at a press conference on March 2, ahead of the top political advisory body's annual session. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

China's two sessions are in full swing, however, "there is no effort 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-America Studies. Gupta said cartoonish stereotypes perpetuating the idea that "two sessions are a rubber stamp" run deep in the West, and Western media is happy to give full play to this caricature. Where does such misunderstanding come from? How can we understand China's 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 considered as a window to observe China's development and the practice of Chinese-style democracy. What's your expectation for the event this year and how do you view its significance concerning China's future development? 

The two sessions (and the 20th National Congress of CPC later this year) take place during a profoundly important phase in China's national economic development. In the short term, China is contemplating a considered pathway to the next stage of managing, and thereafter at some point, exiting COVID-19 restrictions. The economic "reform and opening up" choices that China makes today, including those at the two sessions, will determine whether China will be a country without economic peers in the international system during the mid and latter half of this century, much as the US was in the 20th century. And so, my expectation is that while Chinese leaders will tread carefully in providing near-term fiscal support to the economy in 2022 to tide over the virus dislocations and the political and economic fallout stemming from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, they will have their sights firmly fixed on the larger 2035 socialist modernization goals that were confirmed at the two sessions last year as part of China's 14th Five Year Plan.   

GT: Some Westerners and Western media outlets often call the two sessions "rubber stamp" politics, which you disagree with. What misunderstanding do they have two sessions? Where does this misunderstanding come from?  

The core misunderstanding that Westerners - who have had no substantive contact with China - have is their belief that the country is run by a self-selected coterie of two dozen individuals who give instructions from a high tower, and everybody beneath simply clicks their heels and falls in line with the instructions. It sounds almost cartoonish yet the stereotype runs deep in the West, and western media is happy to give full play to this caricature. There is no effort made to explain the complexity of China's governance systems. And this is done in order to accentuate, in part, divisions between China's and the West's political systems and reinforce in the process that the only political system that can succeed is one that looks like theirs. 

What western views miss, however, is the intense push-and-pull, horizontally and vertically, at multiple levels of China's government in the course of preference aggregation and decision-making as well as the depth of consultation within the system, especially in the course of NPC Standing Committee deliberations. It goes without saying that a sophisticated $17 trillion economy of 1.4 billion citizens cannot be run on the basis of central command by a narrowly ensconced minority at the top. And if proof was ever required of the depth of top-down and bottom-up buy-in, Westerners should study the well-established framework of fine-grained local governance, filtering down from the city to district and community levels, that has played such an instrumental role in successfully containing and clearing the COVID-19 virus.    

GT: Chinese democracy is a whole-process 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 people's democracy? Compared with Western-style democracy, what do you think is the biggest difference?

Democracy is about representative government where the supreme power is vested in 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 sitting government's public mandate. Paired with that is a wide berth for political speech, so long as it is peacefully expressed and does not border on harassment or obstruction. In China, the system of preference aggregation is a lot more centralized and hierarchical - although no less consultative. For almost all Westerners and most non-Westerners, the lack of public elections is considered a disqualifying feature against being considered a democracy.   

This having been said, the democracy that is practiced in the US has brought a certain degree of disrepute on itself because of the lack of civility within the political discourse. Political gain is sought to be obtained by driving wedges among constituents on polarizing issues rather than serving the well-being of constituents. And to the extent that "constituents" are served, they more often tend to be moneyed interests or politically connected interest groups with narrow agendas, rather than the lay electorate at large. The US Supreme Court's decisions to open the floodgates and thereafter legitimize the gusher of corporate money in federal politics has wreaked a terrible impact too on honest, uncorrupted and common-sense governance. It has made systemic change that much harder to realize within the system's guardrails.

On the other hand, China has been well-served by a more tightly controlled political system that has allowed the state to enjoy a certain degree of autonomy from society in order to telescope a great deal of socioeconomic reform within a remarkably short period of time. The system works well for a polity at a relatively early stage of national development. China will no doubt get much more powerful in the years ahead but managing the dynamics of domestic power will become an increasingly complex proposition politically.