Chongqing: democracy already exists in China

Imogen Braddick

Made up of 20 million citizens, Chongqing acts as a bridge between China’s past and its future. It is known for two things: it’s incredibly spicy food and incredibly hot weather. It should also be known for its pioneering new techniques to reach its people.

Development economists suggest that democracy forms naturally as a result of a rising middle-class or economic growth. Some even suggest that economic growth must precede democracy. Incredibly, China has achieved outstanding economic growth without addressing the possibility of democracy.

China refuses to embrace Western principles of democracy that are simply not replicable in its political environment; instead it needs to create its own form of a gradualist and participatory governance. This is what Chongqing is attempting to do.

Li Dianxun, the director of the Chongqing’s government’s legal affairs, is attempting to strengthen the rule of law and consult the public when making important decisions. Recent legislation has allowed local government officers to be investigated if they make irrational or questionable decisions. There have been over 600 public hearings; citizens have been invited to discuss important matters such as setting a minimum wage and setting the prices of public utilities. Li Dianxun argues that “if the government can’t keep up with economic development there will be problems”. 

The current form of democracy that is found within some cities across China is far removed from the Western style party competition of democracy. It appears to draw on polls, public hearings and encouraging participation. They use these concepts in the place of elections. One key problem facing China’s local governments is accountability and transparency; in Chongqing major spending decisions are decided through public consultation and legislation allows local governments to be held accountable for their actions. Fang Ning, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences compares Western democracy to a “fixed-menu restaurant where customers can select the identity of their chef, but have no say in what dishes he chooses to cook for them” – in other words, citizens in Chongqing may always have the same leaders, but they have direct influence over what is served to them. China has found its own way to legitimise policy decisions that is suited to its historical power structure.

China is not a radical nation – every reform implemented since 1979 has been gradual and often the result of experimentation and slow infiltration of new ideas. Whether Chongqing’s form of democracy will spread is an open question. Special Economic Zones, created during the reform era, were designed to contain economic growth and FDI to coastal areas initially and then let it spread. To a large extent, this has not happened. But many key policies adopted by central government started out in rural and agricultural provinces. So perhaps Chongqing’s experimentation does stand a chance of spreading, as long as more provinces adopt similar concepts. 

Chongqing is swelling by 500,000 every year and I can understand why. Economic growth and increased exposure to Western ideology is likely to generate increased demand for accountability and participation in major policy decisions. Importantly, the most problematic issues facing China today are problems in social welfare – pollution, income inequality and a rapidly ageing population, just to name a few. The United Nations sets 40 as the warning level of increased risk of social unrest and China had a score of 46.2 in 2015 (National Bureau of Statistics of China). Bluntly, China requires a new set of reforms entirely focused on social welfare and democratic mechanisms are likely to make this more realistic. 

Finally, congratulations to the UK for holding a referendum on EU membership – we are embracing a return to direct democracy. Direct democracy and participation is what China is trying to achieve and perhaps we can learn a little lesson from their fresh, innovative and experimental way of looking at democracy. China is a relatively young nation, with regards to entering the global playing field, and perhaps they can implement a more efficient democracy than the West have ever done. In the US, legislation that is approved by the population has a minimum change of being passed in Congress. In the UK, the majority of manifestos are never fully implemented. In China, Chongqing and its frequent public consultations and polling may stand a chance at changing the entire face of direct democracy in emerging economies. Perhaps China’s form of democracy will be more appealing to current dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that currently refuse to adopt a Western ideal of democracy. 

P.S. Gatwick has recently announced direct flights to Chongqing! Go check it out for yourself.