China revisits a contradiction


HONG KONG — More than 25 years ago, China’s paramount ruler Deng Xiaoping criticized excessive concentration of power within the Communist Party as the cause of grave problems, including the precipitation of the Cultural Revolution.

On Aug. 18, 1980, in an address to an enlarged meeting of the Politburo, he spoke about the need to reform the system of party and state leadership.

“It is true that the errors we made in the past were partly attributable to the way of thinking and style of work of some leaders,” he said. “But they were even more attributable to the problems in our organizational and working systems.”

He went on: “If these systems are sound, they can place restraints on the actions of bad people; if they are unsound, they may hamper the efforts of good people or indeed, in certain cases, may push them in the wrong direction.”

As a result, Deng said, “Even so great a man as Comrade Mao Zedong was influenced to a serious degree by certain unsound systems and institutions, which resulted in grave misfortunes for the party, the state and himself” — referring to the Cultural Revolution.

Deng said he did not mean to exonerate individuals who had made mistakes but wished to point out that “the problems with leadership and organizational systems are more fundamental, widespread and long-lasting, and have a greater effect on the overall interests of our country.”

Twenty-seven years ago Deng pointed to the need to drastically change institutions and systems within the party to avoid over-concentration of power. However, to this day, the party still has not instituted thorough reforms of its unsound systems and institutions.

At the last party congress in 2002, outgoing leader Jiang Zemin emphasized the need for democracy, but a very peculiar kind of democracy. While asserting that “inner-party democracy is the life of the party,” he emphasized the need to adhere to “democratic centralism,” a system that “integrates centralism on the basis of democracy with democracy under centralized guidance.”

This theme of emphasizing inner-party democracy rather than general political democracy has been continued by his successor, Hu Jintao. However, Hu, too, seeks to rein in the concept of inner-party democracy by stressing the importance of “democratic centralism,” which stands democracy on its head by making it subservient to centralism.

As pointed out recently by Shi Xiaohu, a scholar with the Guangzhou Municipal Academy of Social Sciences, the Communist Party charter does not contain a single clause on inner-party democracy although the term “democratic centralism” appears many times.

In fact, from a historical standpoint, all Communist parties when first formed paid heed to the idealistic principle of democracy put forward by Marx and Engels. However, this was transformed into “democratic centralism” by Lenin and later adopted by China’s communists.

Lenin proposed “democratic centralism” when the survival of the underground movement was threatened and it was vital to centralize power. Similarly, the Chinese communists adopted democratic centralism in 1927 in order to cope with the urgent political situation at that time. According to Shi, it was “an extraordinary measure taken at extraordinary times.”

In 1945, when the party held its 7th congress, it modified its constitution by changing “democracy under centralized guidance” into “democracy under centralized leadership.” In this way, the central leadership’s views were predominant and “democracy” was further curtailed.

The Communist Party has been in power now for almost six decades. There is no reason for it to continue to behave as though it was still an underground party.

China needs democracy, and inner-party democracy can be seen as a step in that direction. However, for “inner-party democracy” to be meaningful, the concept of “democratic centralism” must be jettisoned or, at the very least, drastically modified. Experience has shown that with “democratic centralism” in place, inner-party democracy cannot develop. Only in this way can “inner-party democracy” be seen as a step toward general political democracy in the country. But with “democratic centralism” in place, democracy of any kind, including inner-party democracy, is meaningless.

All eyes are now on the 17th Party Congress due to be held next month. Will there be any progress in inner-party democracy? If the new leaders are handpicked and simply approved by the deputies to the congress, then little progress will have been made in terms of democratization. If “democratic centralism” is upheld, we can be sure there will be no real attempt to develop inner-party democracy.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: