Consultative democracy means people can engage with policies at every level of society
Published: Mar 03, 2024 08:46 PM
The deputies to the 14th National People's Congress (NPC) of various ethnic groups take a group photo in Tiananmen Square on March 4, 2023. Photo: VCG

The deputies to the 14th National People's Congress (NPC) of various ethnic groups take a group photo in Tiananmen Square on March 4, 2023. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

China's annual two sessions begin this week. This critical series of meetings in spring is vital to defining China's approach to economic, political and foreign policy issues for the whole year. It also offers observers a window into the latest ideas and practices of China's development in various aspects, including the whole-process people's democracy, high-quality development, Chinese modernization and the wisdom the country provides to global governance.

In the first piece of the series "Two sessions inspirations," Martin Albrow (Albrow), an eminent British sociologist and one of the first globalization theorists, shared his insights on China's democratic model with Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Zixuan.

GT: You have visited China many times and have studied China's development and its system. What is your understanding of China's whole-process people's democracy? What do you think about the significance of the two sessions and their decisions for the Chinese government and people?

Albrow: I think China has got a very unique and well-developed system of consultative democracy, which means that people can engage with the policies of the government at every level of society, and they are being consulted at every level. I think the notion of consultative democracy is actually very appropriate for the current age. The main model in the West is one that very frequently leads to disaster, and they are very close to a disaster at the moment. 

Of course, the worst disaster with democracy in the West was in the 20th century, when Adolf Hitler was elected democratically in Germany. Look what happened after that, he became the worst dictator the world has ever known. So, the Western style of democracy can work well, but it's a far riskier model than the Chinese one and the Chinese one is well suited to China. Historically, China's development is very much a form of hierarchical government where people can be consulted and they can voice their opinions at every level.

GT: You have mentioned that the Chinese version of democracy is "very different from the kinds which exist in so many Western countries." What misconceptions does the West have about China's democracy? Why are these misconceptions difficult to change?

The main reason is because it is managed by the Communist Party of China. And there are many people in the West who have a feeling of great hostility toward communism, particularly in the US. I'm proud to call myself a friend of China, but I have a very close old friend and he has a friend who says to him, "Martin is a traitor," simply because I'm a friend of China. 

There are other historical reasons why there is hostility toward China. Some of them are very much to the discredit of the West. The UK did terrible things to China in the 19th century. What impresses me when I come to China is how wonderfully welcoming Chinese people are. I can't explain just why it is that Chinese people are so generous, but they are.

British sociologist Martin Albrow Photo: Xinhua

British sociologist Martin Albrow Photo: Xinhua

GT: Why don't the US and other Western countries focus more on remedying their own systemic deficiencies, instead of constantly attacking Chinese-style democracy?

Albrow: That comes down to geopolitics and the fact that in any political system, I'm talking about a system where there is competition for power, the leading power country will always be threatened by the rise of another country. This has nothing to do with communism. This has to do with the dynamics of geopolitics. This is sometimes called the Thucydides Trap. 

The Thucydides Trap was proposed by a Greek historian who said that the rise of Sparta was regarded as a great threat to Athens, irrespective of the fact that they could coexist. In other words, the one on top will feel threatened by the one that is rising. It's as simple as that. Now, if you add that to the fear of communism, you can understand why geopolitics today is in a very unstable situation.

GT: As a well-known sociologist, what is the significance of Chinese-style democracy for the development of democratic politics in the world?

Albrow: One suggestion I have made before is that the Communist Party of China could make more efforts to be in touch with what is called civil society in the West. It does make good contact with communist parties in the West, but communist parties in the West are in a very different position from the Communist Party of China.

So you have to think about what elements in the Chinese system would also be in the Western system and could be receptive to and interested in good relations with the party. Those will be mainly civil society groups, like the Friends of the Earth, which are concerned with climate change, or those organizations that are concerned with refugees. If the CPC could reach out to those organizations, I think it would be very beneficial for the world.

GT: You have highly praised the idea of a global community of shared future and the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). What kind of development and governance philosophy of China do these ideas reflect? Why have they been widely welcomed by the international community?

I would say most countries in the world, and most people in the world accept these concepts as very fine concepts. I think the countries that obviously adopt the most will be the ones that have already benefited from the BRI. As most countries in the world have now benefited from the Belt and Road, they obviously will see a shared future as an example of the way China reaches out through its relations with other countries. The countries that are not enthusiastic will be the ones that are very close to the US and regard the BRI as being a kind of attempt to undermine American power.

But I think most countries in the world accept the notion of a shared future. Personally, I think that, in this respect, we have to accept that the US and China don't understand each other. So I do think that we need to understand that a shared future is one based on cooperation. That's important. I don't think that the development of shared understanding will go quickly enough, but we have to remember that people who don't understand each other can still cooperate. There are limits to understanding, but we have to promote the advantages of cooperation.

GT: You mentioned that "an integrated West really is out of date...and Chinese leadership now is best applied in the global institutions." What did you mean by that? What role can China play?

China is very much in favor of global institutions and global governance, and it does everything it can to support them. It fits with China's own sense of history. It fits with the idea of the middle kingdom, because it builds relationships through the world as a whole. And global governance, as we know it today, is bringing people together with shared values and shared purposes, like the Millennium Development Goals. If you belong to the United Nations, you belong to that mission to save the world. So I think it fits very neatly with Chinese history. 

The paradox is that the US is always very ambivalent about the UN. As we know, time and again, the US is interested in going its own way and forgetting about the UN. Now, in general, I think China is very concerned with global governance, and anxious to fit in with it and see it move forward.

GT: You also pointed out that "China offers the world qualities that can mobilize other countries to meet global threats." What are the greatest threats facing the world today? What is the problem with the repeated failure of international governance mechanisms? 

Albrow: The big problem today is the fracturing of the consensus around globalization. I'm afraid to say this has been one of the consequences of globalization. Globalization advances the global economy, and it advances top economies. We know historically from our experience in the UK in the 19th century. We called it free trade. It was to the advantage of the most powerful country, not necessarily to the advantage of smaller countries and vulnerable countries. But it is to the collective advantage of the world as a whole. 

When you look at any individual country, you will find all kinds of damaging results from globalization. And one of the paradoxes is that the US is one of those countries which have suffered from globalization, even though it has promoted it. As a consequence, very large areas of American industry have become out of date. Many people feel resentful that they are out of work. We have the polarization of politics in the US, but we also have polarization of politics in many other countries too. This is, in the broader sense, a consequence of globalization. 

It's going to take a great deal of skill and wisdom on the part of world leaders to solve this problem. In this respect, China has got to take the leading role. China must take the leading role in bringing peace and harmony as far as possible in all the troubled spots of the world, and that includes Israel, Ukraine and Yemen. All the troubled spots are the areas where Chinese diplomacy has got to be very active in trying to create peace because peace is obviously in the best interests of the world.