What Will Come out of the Communist Party’s Polling the People Online?Ethan J. Leib in China File, August 07, 2013
By Ethan J. Leib: Thursday, August 8, 2013 - 3:39pm
Eight years ago, I went to China to sing the gospel of the deliberative democracy movement there. Several foreigners from around the democratic world were invited to Hangzhou to “The International Conference on Deliberative Democracy and Chinese Practices of Participatory and Deliberative Institutions.” Westerners brought theory for the most part; the Chinese exposed participants to contemporary case studies of native deliberative practices that often were richer than any Westerner imagined—as well as native historical and traditional conceptual resources that might be mobilized to enhance further deliberative democratization of China. The conference was not just a public relations campaign by the hosts, some of whom were academics in China and some of whom were active members of the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy.
We produced a book of essays, after vigorous debate among participants and observers from academia and government. The core point of the book is to show that there are many paths to democratization and that local conditions and cultures limit and contour reasonable democratic aspirations. Ultimately, Western theories and institutions of democracy can be a source of learning for Chinese—but it has never made a lot of sense to use only Western benchmarks to assess democratic progress in China.
When I read the China File discussion about the CCP’s “listening” and “polling,” I couldn’t help but remember my time in China, watching members of the CCP listen and then debate the virtues of a more deliberative democracy. They were thinking hard about the right kinds of local design that would be properly calibrated to China’s traditional systems of governance. It is easy from the outside to be critical of a one-party authoritarian state, but watching an authoritarian state try to transition into a more sensitive and deliberative one requires less cynicism and more productive and supportive engagement. Indeed, the new polling efforts actually are consistent with what some scholars—growing out of the Hangzhou conference—have labeled “authoritarian deliberation.” Authoritarian deliberation still requires more than just looking at polls to reinforce the Party’s control; the government needs to show it is a real trustee of its people, something we can only learn by watching what the CCP does with its polling results.
As in liberal democracies, in China political office is a public trust. Pursuing interests of the rulers over the interest of the people is basically corrupt. As Chen Shengyong has written, even under ancient Chinese despotism, “people first” was an essential political ideal. The power political rulers wield, in China as elsewhere, is justifiable only to the extent that the power is used to pursue the common good of the people. Listening to and polling the people on matters of public concern is a critical method to understand better what is in the best interests of the people. Even if we don’t give the CCP full credit for deliberative democratization (and take note of how listening and polling could further corruption rather than serving the people’s interests), it deserves recognition and support for institutional design efforts that makes it possible to administer the public trust better.