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The Essence of Democratic Centralism within the Chinese Communist Party

On November 16, 2009, The Study Times Network published two articles about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) inner party democracy: "The Development of Inner-Party Democracy and the Improvement of Democratic Centralism [1]" and "Guarding against Inattentiveness to Democracy." Superficially, these two articles explained how "inner-Party democracy is the life of the Party." In essence, the articles emphasized that "a centralized and unified Party guarantees the Party’s strength," because "The democratic centralism system is the Party’s fundamental institutional principle; it is the core content of the Party’s institutional system, and it is the guarantee of the inner-Party’s democratic development." In other words, inner-Party democracy is a democracy under the Chinese Communist Party’s control. The following are excerpts summarizing the main points of these two articles.

In the article "The Development of Inner-Party Democracy and the Improvement of Democratic Centralism," it says, "The development of inner-Party democracy should be carried out within the Party’s democratic centralism system; it cannot cross the boundaries of the Party’s democratic centralism system; more importantly, it cannot deny, abandon or cancel the Party’s democratic centralism system. The democratic centralism system, as the Party’s fundamental leadership system and political principle, is the essential characteristic and the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party; it is a guarantee for the Party to carry out its leadership role.… It is also the institutional foundation for insuring that the Party maintains its long-term leadership; it is the reflection of and an important source for the Party to maintain its advanced nature. … Upholding a centralized system built on democracy, upholding democracy under the guidance of centralism, and supporting the Party’s centralization and unity are important guarantees of the Party’s creativity, cohesion, and fighting effectiveness. … Only by safeguarding the Party’s centralization and unity can (we) ensure the unity of the nation, the unity of ethnic groups, and the harmony of society."[2]

Although the CCP states that "inner-Party democracy is the life of the Party," the reality is another story. In the article "Guarding against Inattentiveness to Democracy," it said, "Because of the ‘anti-rightist movement’ in 1957, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in 1958, the ‘anti-rightist’ campaign in 1959, and in particular, the ‘Cultural Revolution,’ which brought a decade of civil strife starting in 1966, inner-Party democracy and the people’s democracy have suffered severe damage. … (At that time) if ever there was any talk, especially sharp criticism, the government would start to check the individuals’ ‘political background’ and ‘political rumors,’ then file a case and start to repress those involved." "The truth cannot be avoided, and cannot be hidden. …The cadre leaders were arrogant, imperious, and despotic, too many sought to serve their own interests, too few solved problems for the people; they didn’t listen to the opinions of the masses or to media criticism. If citizens petitioned or offered public opinions, those in charge were either indifferent or stayed away. Their responses ranged from perfunctory, to not uttering a word, to even adopting such methods as ‘going after them.’ If someone said something different, the official tried to ‘use the media to cover it up, or extinguish it to prevent it from spreading,’ or other self-deceiving, absurd behavior. They even sought revenge. … Inner-Party democracy is the life of the Party, and the people’s democracy is the life of the nation. If there is no democracy, the Party will not advance and will lose its ruling status. There will be no scientific development or social harmony and no Socialist modernization; The Party will disintegrate, and the nation will disintegrate." [3]

"The development of inner-Party democracy and the improvement of democratic centralism should be unified. Inner-Party democracy is a type of ‘limited’ democracy. It is under a certain political authority; it is a democracy within a political organization. Inner-Party democracy is not exactly the same as national democracy. Party members are different from regular citizens; the democratic rights of Party members within the Party are different from citizens’ democratic rights; the dominant rights of Party members in the Party are different from the dominant rights of citizens in the nation. … The unique characteristics of inner-Party democracy are: First, Party members’ equal rights are conditional. That is, the prerequisite to joining the Communist Party is to have common political beliefs. In certain situations, one may be required to sacrifice his/her own rights for the needs of the organization. Second, the power structure within the Party is not equivalent to the power structure at the national level. Although within the Party, power is retrained with power, mostly power is restrained by rights. Third, the scope that inner-Party democracy covers is smaller than that of national democracy or social democracy. Inner-Party democracy involves fewer people. What’s more, in addition to complying with the Constitution and laws, the discipline and requirements within the Party are more strict." [2]

"The inner-Party democracy we are talking about now is very different from the past. It is no longer just an issue of carrying forward democracy in leadership groups or in the decision-making process. Rather, it is an issue of the whole Party’s institutional reform and improvement. To develop inner-Party democracy is a matter of life and death for the Party. The ultimate goal is to have the inner-Party democracy uplift the peoples’ democracy, to have harmony within the Party, and to lead to social harmony. This can be achieved by safeguarding the Party members’ democratic rights as the most basic tenet, focusing on improving the Party congress system and the Party committee system, reforming the institutional mechanisms, and initiating system innovation as the entry point, and having theory, practice and institutional achievements as the mainstay. … Inner-Party democracy is the kernel of democracy. … Democratic centralism serves inner-Party political democracy, so that the inner-Party democracy can be reflected and protected at the system and organizational level. Without keeping democratic centralism under the protection of the system and organization, inner-Party democracy will be difficult to achieve, difficult to sustain, or difficult to control. Therefore, democratic centralism is a reflection of the Party’s political democracy in both its organizational principle and its institutional perspectives." [2]

"In summary, there are two main ways to develop inner-Party democracy: to standardize the power relations within the Party, and to develop direct democracy from the grassroots. The advancement of these two elements must be equally emphasized. To standardize power relations within the Party, in essence, is to develop an indirect democracy within the Party, to standardize the scope of how much power can be delegated and the relationship of allocating power within the Party. It includes the following components: the starting point is to implement the dominant position of Party members’ rights; and then from the bottom-up to designate: the generation of the Party representatives and the role of the Party representatives; from there, the generation the Party Congress and its role as the highest organ of power; from there, the generation of the Party’s Central Committee (local Party committee) and the implementation of its role as a power organization; from there the generation of the Party’s Politburo (local Standing Committee) and the implementation of its role within the authorized power, and lastly, the generation of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and general secretary (local Party committee and the Standing Committee secretary) and the implementation of their roles within the authorized power. … The crux of the problem of inner-Party power relations is the ‘excessive concentration of power.’ Throughout the organizational system, power is more concentrated as one moves up the hierarchy, toward the level of Party committees and above, to eventually the Party Committee Secretary, which has the final say." [2]

"To develop direct democracy from the grassroots is the other main way of developing inner-Party democracy. The basic form of direct democracy is electoral democracy; the most important initiative to develop grassroots direct democracy is to promote grassroots direct elections. … The basic form of grassroots democracy is competition at elections. This competition at elections is the most direct embodiment of inner-Party democracy." [2]

[1] Two descriptions of Democratic Centralism follow:
a.) A Leninist doctrine requiring discussion of issues until a decision is reached by the party. After a decision is made, discussion concerns only planning and execution. This method of decision making directed lower bodies unconditionally to implement the decisions of higher bodies.
.) Democratic centralism is the name given to the principles of internal organization used by Leninist political parties, and the term is sometimes used as a synonym for any Leninist policy inside a political party. The democratic aspect of this organizational method describes the freedom of members of the political party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction, but once the decision of the party is made by majority vote, all members are expected to uphold that decision. This latter aspect represents the centralism. As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of "freedom of discussion, unity of action."  Lenin, V. (1906). "Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P."