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Democratic elections in a one-party regime

China is a one-party regime, yet elections are held for the local congresses. PhD candidate Wang Zhongyuan investigated how the Communist Party uses this democratic instrument to strengthen the authoritarian regime. PhD defence 31 January.

By Western standards, the political system in China is unusual: an authoritarian regime with just one party. A non-democracy, where elections nonetheless take place for the local congresses – similar to local councils in the Netherlands. ‘Westerners take the approach that these elections are just window-dressing,’ says political scientist Wang Zhongyuan. ‘At the same time, they’re often regarded as a catalyst for democratization in China. I challenge both these ideas: the Chinese government actually uses this democratic instrument to strengthen its rule in local society.’

Observing elections

Wang conducted field research in China; he talked with voters, local deputies, independent candidates and a number of party cadres and congress officials, and sat in on meetings and elections as an observer. ‘I wanted to know how and under what conditions the Communist party is able to use the elections to strengthen its position.’ He identified two methods.  

Representation without free elections

First, the Party keeps the ‘input’ in the elections strategically low: there are strict rules on who can stand for election, and independent candidates are rarely found on the electoral list. Citizens can only vote for local congresses, in other words at a very low, regional level. But once the local deputies are elected, the Party makes sure that the ‘output’ is very high: the deputies have to do a lot for the community, such as providing public goods or services, so that voters feel strongly represented by their elected deputies. Wang: ‘Limiting the electoral competition and strengthening the representation after the election are the two cards that the regime plays to consolidate its position.’

Comparison with Taiwan

Comparing the situation in China with that in Taiwan gave Wang a clearer idea about the conditions under which the Chinese government manages to use elections to strengthen its position. ‘Taiwan used to have a one-party regime with elections. However, there the elections did contribute to the nation’s democratization. In Taiwan, we see much more opposition to the system and the regime has a much weaker grip.’ Wang identified three factors that may have an influence. ‘First of all the ruling party (the KMT) in Taiwan needs the help of local factions or influential families. This leaves them less control over the electoral machines.

Only local opposition

Not only that, people in Taiwan can also vote for representatives at much higher levels than in China, for provincial deputies, for example. This gives the opposition the opportunity to organize themselves in broader groups/across a broader span. ‘In China it’s almost impossible for opposition groups to unite, because the elections are at such a local level. The opposition in the municipal council in Leiden wouldn’t be likely to join forces with the opposition in Utrecht, would they?’ And there’s another crucial difference: The government in Taiwan has stated its intention to move towards a Western style of democracy, whereas China intends to adhere to its own system: a socialist democracy based on Chinese values.’   

Worldwide phenomenon

Wang believes it will be beneficial for relations between the West and China if we have an understanding of how exactly democratic institutions work within a non-democracy. ‘It is a worldwide phenomenon, take Vietnam, Egypt, Syria, Venezuela or Russia, for example.’ Wang was particularly surprised by the emphasis that the Chinese government places on the period after the elections, when they more or less force the elected deputies to actively represent their followers. ‘Of course, an election is important. But performance after elections is equally important. In some ways politicians in the West can learn a lot from China’s concern with post-election representation. Here in the West, we’re always hearing complaints that once they’re elected, politicians forget all about the electorate.’ 

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