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Developing Inner-Party Grassroots Democracy: Problems and Prospects

[Editor’s Note: Ms. Zhang Jinming is a Deputy Party Secretary of Mianyang City, Sichuan Province. In 1999, as a District Party Secretary, she organized China’s first direct election of a township administrator. After surviving the controversy that resulted from this experiment, China’s media made Ms. Zhang a celebrity and she received several promotions. [1] The following are excerpts from Ms. Zhang latest article in Study Times. The author lists the problems of China’s Inner-Party democracy. As a pioneer of grassroots democracy, Ms. Zhang’s observations reveal some fundamental flaws and contradictions in the Party’s theory and reality.] [2]

In recent years the development of Inner-Party grassroots democracy has made considerable progress. However, there are still many issues that cannot be ignored.

Problem No. 1: Party members have not been able to establish a dominant position in Party affairs.

1.1 There is no solid base for Party members’ rights of expression. Ordinary Party members and the Party’s grassroots cadres do not have open, permanent, and safe channels through which to express their opinions and get feedback on Party affairs. It is hard for them to express their real thoughts and opinions to higher-level Party leaders. In some localities, nobody listens to or cares about Party members’ true thoughts; Party members are discouraged from participating in Party affairs.

1.2 Party members’ choices are limited. When elections are held within the Party, campaign materials about candidates are all similar and old fashioned. Party members do not know the candidates well. It is difficult for Party members to make their own judgments. In some places, the difference between the number of candidates and the number of positions is very small. For the top leaders, the number of candidates and positions are usually equal. In some places where the number of positions and candidates are equal, the rule requires that only the no-voters write on the ballot, while the yes-voters can turn in blank ballots. This practice means that anyone who writes on the ticket opposes the candidates. The average Party members feel that their right to vote is monitored, so they often do not fill in their ballots.

1.3 Party members’ right to seek election is not fully implemented. Generally speaking there are three ways to get elected: to be nominated by the Party organization, to be recommended by other Party members, or self-nomination. Currently the degree of openness for Party elections is limited. Party members have very little opportunity to be identified and nominated by the Party organization. When there is no open channel for Party members to express their opinions, it is hard for other Party members to recommend them. Currently there is no official rule for self-nomination. The number of opportunities for self-nomination for Party election is close to zero. As a result, although the “Communist Party of China Constitution” explicitly provides that Party members have a right to be elected, ordinary Party members and grassroots cadres rarely attain such a right.

1.4 Party members’ legitimate needs are ignored. Over the years, the Party organization has talked a lot about the Party members’ obligations but has said little about their rights; the Party requires its members to contribute but does not reward them enough; the Party also encourages its members to make personal sacrifices but ignores its members’ demands for an equal share of the perks (with the leaders). After years of such practices, feelings between the Party organizations and the Party members are not as warm as they should be. For many years, grassroots Party cadres’ income, especially those in rural areas, has been below the local average. Some grassroots Party cadres and members have a hard time making ends meet.

Problem No. 2: The functions of the local Party organizations, as a whole, are overshadowed by the roles of the individual leaders.

2.1 In some places, the local Party committee’s collective leadership has evolved into leadership by a government head. Different levels of local governments have implemented a chief executive accountability system. The chief executive has the sole power to OK or veto any decision. The “Communist Party of China Constitution” declares that the Party committees at all levels should implement the system of combining group collective leadership with individual responsibility. Party organizations must follow majority rule. In decision making, the Party secretary’s vote has equal weight with other Party committee members. In reality, however, the majority’s view is ignored. Usually, the Party secretary has the final say.

2.2 In some places, the local Party committee collective leadership has become personal leadership. Some leaders issue official documents, make reports to higher levels, or make public speeches on behalf the local organization, but the committee group does not discuss or agree upon the content before the release. For some work that is considered important, higher level officials often require the lower level Party committees’ secretary to take personal responsibility. Some Party committee secretaries openly claim that they represent the Party committee. Some committees treat lower-level Party committee secretary’s personal opinions as the committee’s, while ignoring other committee members’ opinions.

2.3 In some places, the relatively balanced power structure within local Party committees has been lost. After the implementation of standing committee members having a separate responsibility system, the communications and exchanges within the original mutually constrained and balanced triangular relationship among “secretary, the deputy secretary and functional departments” did not take place. The democratic atmosphere that took place at past secretaries’ work meetings, with open communications, equal and free discussions, and debates, was not transferred to the current standing committee meetings. Many standing committee members become blind followers. …

Problem No. 3: A public opinion environment to promote Inner-Party democracy has not been established.

3.1 Some comrades have doubts about Inner-Party democracy. They think the Party should focus on the economy; some worry that promoting “Inner-Party democracy” will be viewed as a power struggle with the authorities; some fear that Inner-Party democracy may trigger a chain reaction that will get out of control; and some even believe that Inner-Party democracy is something for the high level Party organizations and has nothing to do with grassroots organizations.

3.2 Grassroots organizations cannot fully understand and coordinate with the big picture. When the grassroots organizations are not clear about higher level’s long-term plans, they often have no priorities in their work; they work on whatever is thrown at them and ignore other tasks. As a result, grassroots level Party organizations do not have good coordination with each other, and there are many gaps and contradictions in the rules and regulations.

3.3 The process for implementing Inner-Party democracy is not complete. Inner-Party democracy affects everybody. Coordination among the different Party departments, the People’s Congress, the government, and the Political Consultative Conference (PCC) is needed. Party committees should be able coordinate the leadership of the different departments. In many places when Party building work performance is assessed, Inner-Party democracy is not seen as a priority, so Party committees do not pay much attention to it. The comrades who actively participate and explore Inner-Party democracy are not rewarded with praise and promotions, although they face greater political risks and pressure.

Causes of problems

From the grassroots perspective, the main problems of Inner-Party democracy are in the following areas:

1. Issues of Institutional Development

There is not enough supporting institutional development. Currently, the principle requirements and specific rules are not compatible. For example, the “Communist Party of China Constitution” and the “Regulations Protecting the Rights of Chinese Communist Party Members” both provide clear descriptions of Party members’ democratic rights. However, (these documents) do not offer specific rules and procedures for Party members and cadres to properly obtain, exercise, and protect their rights. As a result, sometimes Party members’ democratic rights are not recognized.

Some of the systems are not comprehensive. The current accountability system does not have an adequate control mechanism. Some rules are not actually enforced. For example, democratic centralism is an important principle in the Party’s organization, but there is only one provision in “Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Regulations” that deals with what to do when the principle is violated. Rules pertaining to the confirmation and division of responsibility and to the body that determines the consequences and enforcement are not at all clear. In reality, this provision is rarely enforced. Another example is that, while the “Temporary Regulations on Party and Government Leadership Positions” address the length of terms, term limits, maximum term, and maintaining the relative stability of leadership positions, they do not provide clear consequences if the rules are violated. As a result, it is still a norm for the leaders in some positions to be replaced frequently.

2. Issues on Organization Building

The top leadership position in the Party Members Congress is not properly respected. Currently in some areas, committee members elected by the Congress are often transferred; decisions made by the Congress are often changed; and the relationships within the Congress, the Party Committee, and the Party’s Discipline and Inspection Commission are not really clear.

In addition, the organizational structure is not updated in a timely manner. Since our party took control over the nation, the government structure has been reformed many times to adapt to economic and social development, but the coordinating Party organizational functions have not been reviewed carefully, and thus they have not been timely and effectively adjusted. This has resulted in stagnation in a number of leading agencies and departments, which has reduced our efficiency.

3. The Ideological Front

While some grassroots party organizations and cadres continue the Party’s fine tradition and style, they over-emphasize what they learned from the thinking and working methods they formed during the war years and the planned economy period, but under-emphasize the necessity for developing them further. They do not fully understand the new tasks and requirements in the new era and do not have many new ideas.

Some leading cadres at the grassroots level lack common sense in Party development. They do not pay enough attention to the Party’s need to improve, especially from the perspective of the government’s security, let alone from the scientific perspective.

Also, our Party organizations do not provide adequate training in promoting democratic thought and behavior in the cadres and Party members.

4. Theory Development

Currently, the theory on how to develop the Party lags behind the practice. For example, some critical topics need to be intensively researched, such as the relationship between Inner-party democracy and the citizen’s democracy, the relationship between the Party, the People’s Congress, and the PCC, the relationship between the Party Committee and the Discipline and Inspection Commission, and the relationship between Party members and the Party organization. Many questions need to be answered.

Actively Promote Grassroots Inner-Party Democracy

First, we must be sure we are heading in the right direction when promoting democracy within the Party.

The promotion of Inner-Party democracy should be beneficial to improving the Party’s ability to govern, be conducive to consolidating the Party’s ruling foundation, and be beneficial for the Party to lead the nation and for people to develop better and faster. It should be noted that the purpose of promoting Inner-Party democracy is to gather the maximum wisdom and strength of our Party, to inspire the maximum creativity of the whole Party, and to maximize the consolidation of the Party’s unity.

Second, we need to have a bold vision and a careful plan when promoting democracy within the Party.

We have many Party members. Situations in different Party organizations vary widely. Therefore, we should not be too hasty when promoting Inner-Party democracy. The development of Inner-Party democracy should be gradual and experimental at different levels for different classifications and themes. When rules need to be implemented throughout the entire Party, we should gradually promote them after trial runs from the top to the bottom layer of our organizations. We should not enforce them across the board at once.

Third, an important way to promote Inner-Party democracy is to better utilize existing systems and resources.

Since the Party began to rule China, we have developed a large number of scientific and advanced systems for Inner-Party democracy. These are our most precious resources. Several provisions inside the current party system, once activated with detailed operational support, will glow with fresh vitality and inject the body of our Party with new energy.

Fourth, democratic elections are an important way to respect Party members’ dominant position.

A complete democratic election means free nominations following rules (each having an equal right to be elected), open discussion between voters and candidates (equal access to information), and privacy when casting votes (the right of real expression). Effecting a democratic election is a process that will enable our Party to absorb resources and political nutrition from the majority of Party members, as well as allow for a majority of Party members to participate in Party affairs, discuss issues, identify goals, and be selected. This is an important foundation and necessary prerequisite for the members to exercise their right of supervision.

Fifth, the democratic techniques and institutions are equally important.

Once the system is established, the use of technical procedures will determine the success or failure of the system. Once procedures are standardized, the impact of such details as the method of mobilization, the channels of expression, timing, the analysis of data, and even the format of text will be greater. Improper operation of any steps may cause damage to the Inner-Party democratic process, and lead the Party in the wrong direction. Thus we must carefully design and steadily operate them.

[1] China Review News, July 31, 2007
[2] Originally at Study Times, carried by Qiushi, November 8, 2011