Young Chinese academic: Imagining a future China as the CCP celebrates its centenary

Huang Zhiping points out the irony that in many democracies, the people elect the government, but they often have little direct influence over the decisions that elected officials make. Conversely, in the Chinese system, officials are very sensitive to public opinion on Weibo, and react at lightning speed to correct wrong or bad impressions. Is this the power of the people in the true sense of the word? Could the “Weibo model” of ruling those in power be the true utopia?
A student waves during a rehearsal before celebrations in Beijing, China, on 1 July 2021, to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
A student waves during a rehearsal before celebrations in Beijing, China, on 1 July 2021, to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

In March of a certain year, the people’s congresses of hundreds of cities announce their referendum results. The secretary of City A is in touch with the needs of the people and earns an approval rating of 81%. He ranks first among all the candidates and will be promoted. The secretary of City B failed to fulfill his promises and underperformed, gaining an approval rating of 61%. With a mediocre ranking, his chances of promotion are unclear. The secretary of City C drew public dissatisfaction when he was slow to react to a disaster. While he tried his best to remedy the situation, he only gained an approval rating of 43%, which is below the passing rate of 50%. He will be transferred to a non-leadership position.  

The above is something I dreamt up, a scenario that I hope will be realised in China’s new utopia. In this new world, people will be actively engaged in political participation through “appraisal democracy” (考核式民主).  

China’s conceptual and political superstructures have to be tweaked with the times.  

Dawning of the third revolution

Socialism, which rejects the private ownership of property, was once thought to be a path to utopia. Communists religiously strived to achieve utopia through a class revolution. A century has passed since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once said, “Reform is China’s second revolution.” The first revolution was completed by Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, when he successfully founded the country. So then, does China need a third revolution? If the first revolution was carried out in pursuit of independence and the second revolution was done to build the economy, what should the goal of the third revolution be?

Based on classical Marxist theories, when the development of productive forces causes changes in the relations of production or economic base, the superstructure needs to be reformed to meet this change. Otherwise, the further liberation of productive forces would be inhibited. When he delivered a report at the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.”     

People take pictures as they look at a light show on the Bund promenade in Shanghai, China, on 30 June 2021, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People take pictures as they look at a light show on the Bund promenade in Shanghai, China on 30 June 2021, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Meeting people’s rising expectations

People’s needs for a better life are indeed increasing. People expect more from their material and cultural lives. Not only that, their appetites for democracy, the rule of law, fairness, justice, security, and the environment are growing. Clearly, China’s conceptual and political superstructures have to be tweaked with the times.   

Throughout history, major criticisms of Chinese politics have ranged from the CCP’s long-term monopoly on power to its rejection of opposition parties and the fact that the people have no freedom to choose another ruling party. The implication is if there is no freedom of choice, being ruled by such a power is unjust. As a result, the West and its followers feel at liberty to have double standards when they judge China, to ignore the facts, and even spread rumours based on speculation.    

But the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a shocking fact: in multi-party systems, elections may be free but policies are constrained; there may be freedom of speech, but rationality is curtailed; parties may have the freedom to compete, but cooperation between them is limited. In one of her articles, Han Yong Hong, Lianhe Zaobao’s associate editor, said, “In a highly politicised and divided society, while individuals can choose to either support the “pan-blue” or “pan-green” camp, their other choices are restricted or determined by their political positions. A government ought to mind public opinion but may not take people’s views into account in their policymaking.”  

Leaving the report card in the people’s hands

A need for a change in the conceptual superstructure does not mean asking the public to choose from several candidates but asking them to regularly vote on and assess the incumbent government’s rule. This is clearly crucial to China’s political reform. Reducing the emphasis on voting to choose leaders and putting more weight on voting to evaluate leaders’ performance seems to give people less say in the selection of candidates. But the people’s influence over actual policies is actually strengthened.     

In China, the emphasis of the people is whether their concerns are being acted upon swiftly and effectively by the policymakers. Like the ruling party, the people are results-oriented as well.        

People walk on a street in front of a screen marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Shanghai, China, 15 June 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)
People walk on a street in front of a screen marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Shanghai, China, 15 June 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Competition between leaders of similar-sized precincts would ensure that the incumbents fight for every vote, that the public’s perception of alternatives is widened and the practice of choosing a candidate based on his manifesto of promises would be changed. This would also give savvy leaders more flexibility as they would not be bound to any particular political camp.      

Over the past two years, Chinese netizens have derided the US’s two-party democratic system mainly because they think it does not solve practical problems. For example, they say that the US government failed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic which has seen over 600,000 deaths, or that the massive Black Lives Matter movement failed to bring about significant improvements on the government’s performance. In China, the emphasis of the people is whether their concerns are being acted upon swiftly and effectively by the policymakers. Like the ruling party, the people are results-oriented as well.        

Weibo’s “crisis response framework” is pretty uncanny. By focusing attention on various public incidents, netizens push these events to the top of Weibo’s most searched topics. Ruling officials sensitive to public opinion often then give a swift response. If the response is not deemed authoritative or fair enough and causes public dissatisfaction, a higher-level official will provide another response. A fine example of this would be Dr Li Wenliang’s unfortunate death last year and the wave of public opinion that ensued. This caused the central government to order an investigative team to be sent to Wuhan to look into the incident that very afternoon. The surge in traffic on Weibo based on netizens’ outpouring of comments acted as a form of pressure on the officials, which greatly improved the government’s performance.      

The Weibo revolution

Thus, public comments have great political potential and can drive China’s third revolution. The “Weibo model” of discussing politics could be institutionalised and the people’s scope and depth of political participation enlarged. Counting votes instead of user traffic, approval ratings could be taken as the main form of appraisal of governors in various regions, thereby directly associating public opinion with governance and realising the modernisation of the nation’s governance system and governance capabilities based on the direct participation of the people. This is almost on the scale of a political revolution and also an “awakening” in terms of the people’s awareness of political participation.

The ruling party, as well as many elites and the general public, do not think that everyone is qualified to participate in politics. Some even assert that most people are apathetic towards politics.   

Pedestrians walk past a display celebrating the centenary of the Chinese Community Party in Shanghai, China, on 1 July 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians walk past a display celebrating the centenary of the Chinese Community Party in Shanghai, China, on 1 July 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Over the past two years, some academics have questioned the referendum assessment system* that I advocate. Xiao Gongqin, a leading exponent of neoauthoritarianism, thinks that while the idea is novel, the execution process would be tough, especially in the voting process after the elections, which would pose many problems. He believes that election bribery and party factions would emerge, and it would be equally difficult to avoid going down the populist route especially in a backward country. He acknowledged that this idea is indeed valuable, and that perhaps more people would start thinking in this direction ten or 20 years down the road.      

Some other academics also think that this model runs counter to the current centralised system of accountability. Not only would the ruling party not give up its right to appoint and dismiss personnel, operating in this manner may also result in a split between the central and local governments, or trigger political turmoil as a result of the people’s demand for a multi-party system.     

The aforementioned concerns are reasonable and can be resolved by adopting relevant measures. Due to space constraints, I will not go into the details here. The real obstacle to reform does not lie in these factors, but in the fact that the Chinese do not have a strong faith in democracy. The ruling party, as well as many elites and the general public, do not think that everyone is qualified to participate in politics. Some even assert that most people are apathetic towards politics.   

Putting something into practice is the only way of testing a truth, and public opinion is the sole measure of whether something works in practice. Only by accepting these tenets will China’s new utopia have a chance of being realised.

In this photo taken on 9 June 2021, people ride past a propaganda slogan which reads "Follow the Party Forever", outside an exhibition of calligraphy, painting and photography celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, at an exhibition centre in Beijing, China. (Greg Baker/AFP)
In this photo taken on 9 June 2021, people ride past a propaganda slogan which reads "Follow the Party Forever", outside an exhibition of calligraphy, painting and photography celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, at an exhibition centre in Beijing, China. (Greg Baker/AFP)

Indeed, not everyone has the ability to make a decision, but everyone has the right to make a comment. This is not only the crux of popular sovereignty, but also the key to solving the issues of unbalanced and inadequate development. China’s rapid development has resulted in a high degree of social polarisation. Different groups of people have different psychological frames of reference — to govern with precision, one must understand people’s different sources of dissatisfaction and not use one-size-fits-all economic benchmarks.     

Putting something into practice is the only way of testing a truth, and public opinion is the sole measure of whether something works in practice. Only by accepting these tenets will China’s new utopia have a chance of being realised.

*Huang Zhiping thinks that China must change the way it assesses regional governors. In the revamped “referendum assessment system”, the evaluation criteria will be comprehensive, not just measuring economic achievements but taking public opinion into account by measuring governor approval ratings every year. This method of directly injecting democracy into the appraisal process seeks to produce good politicians who are sensitive to public opinion and will adjust their policies to ensure high approval ratings. Politicians should be accountable to the people they serve. 

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