The notion of Chinese democracy is not the same as that in the West. The political system in China is more about consensus building within a greater voice rather than the protracted bargaining to arrive at decisions common in the West.
The country’s application of democratic principles follows an approach Chinese President Xi Jinping has termed “whole-process people’s democracy.” The concept was put forward about two years ago, during Xi’s visit to a civic center in Shanghai.
Based on people’s congress system, the “whole-process people’s democracy” enables the Chinese people to broadly and continuously participate in the day-to-day political activities at all levels, including democratic elections, political consultation, decision-making and oversight.
The story of Chinese lawmaker Liu Li gives a glimpse into how China’s whole-process democracy operates.
A foot masseuse’s way up to China’s top legislature
Liu, a deputy to the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) China’s top legislature, has fought her way to the influential position from the grassroots.
She was born in a poor rural family in Yingshang, a small county in east China’s Anhui Province. She quit school at the age of 14 and worked to support the education of her four siblings.
After leaving home penniless, she went to Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province to work as a waitress and nanny before finding a job as an apprentice in a foot massage center in Xiamen, east China’s Fujian Province.
Her humble background didn’t stop her charitable giving. Liu dropped out of school, but she didn’t want others to be like her. From 2006 to 2010, she sponsored over 100 students.
Liu’s goodwill made her a national celebrity. She was called “the most beautiful foot masseuse in China” and later became a representative for migrant workers and the rural population in China’s top legislative body.
In 2012, Liu was elected as a deputy to the local legislature in Xiamen and became an NPC deputy in 2013. A year later, she moved back to Anhui, where she runs a foot massage parlor and a community center for seniors. She was elected as a deputy for the 13th NPC.
‘Democracy is not for decoration’
Unlike legislators in the West who make a career of politics, China’s NPC deputies, like Liu, work part-time, and many of them are ordinary citizens from all walks of life, including farmers, factory workers, craftsmen, and even street cleaners.
At the annual full session, NPC deputies review and vote on important legal documents and personnel changes, including electing China’s president and vice president every five years and submitting motions and proposals.
Liu’s proposals have focused on disadvantaged groups, such as the elderly, children and migrant workers. In 2018, Liu proposed establishing local “one-stop” help centers to investigate child sexual abuse cases to the NPC. Her proposal was addressed by the NPC and measures were adopted.
Prosecution authorities in Anhui’s Dingyuan County took the lead and set up a juvenile legal education center to handle such cases and minimize the negative impact on children during investigations. Now, there are 15 such centers in the province.
Liu’s suggestions originated from close contact with local communities. When the NPC is not in session, she visits fellow migrant workers’ homes and collects their opinions online. She also listens to comments on society from her clients who come from all walks of life.
Liu’s story is only one example of how grassroots deputies respond to people’s needs and how people’s congresses contribute to China’s “whole-process democracy.” As Xi observed,
Democracy is not an ornament to be used for decoration; it is to be used to solve the problems that the people want to solve.
There are five levels of people’s congresses. The deputies are elected by their respective constituencies, either directly or indirectly. NPC deputies are elected by the people’s congresses of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. At the lower levels of township and county, deputies to people’s congresses are elected directly by voters, accounting for a majority of deputies at all levels. They elect deputies to people’s congresses of cities, who in turn elect deputies at the provincial level.
In 2019, there were a total of 2.67 million deputies of people’s congresses of all levels, including 590,000 at the county-level, and 1.94 million at the township level. Deputies at the two levels accounted for 95 percent of the total number.
“If the people are awakened only for voting but enter a dormant period soon after, if they are given a song and dance during campaigning but have no say after the election, or if they are favored during canvassing but are left out in the cold after the election, such a democracy is not a true democracy,” Xi has said.