Andrey Vinogradova

For several decades, Western politicians considered lack of democracy to be the main problem with China. However, when the global economic crisis struck they realised that the rest of the world is more dependent on the China’s economy than its democracy. This was highly symbolic for the era of globalisation and an extremely timely shift of priorities.

Nevertheless, the rest of the world is still discussing the Chinese political system, especially with the 18th National Congress of Communist Party of China round the corner.

For many Western specialists, the level of a country’s development is directly connected to its state of democracy. But China’s success and the economic crisis in Europe and the United States shook the faith in this belief. But the question remains: Will China be able to endure the difficulties and prove the advantages of its development model in new conditions?

A radical change of the current political system is impossible without the maturation of the corresponding political culture. People, for whom the basic requirements of food, clothing and housing are still the first priority, need the political power that would be able to satisfy their requirements. This power has the highest degree of legitimacy. Despite the appearance of new social groups that require extension of their political involvement, the majority of the population in China is still interested mainly in stable welfare growth, not in changing a political system.

Even in the West, the legitimacy of the political power is not secured only by elections. Only a relative minority of the electorate votes leaders to power in Western countries. For example, in 2008 less than 30 per cent of the US electorate voted for Barack Obama, with more than 40 per cent not participating in the election either because they believed elections could be manipulated or for other reasons.

There is no one-party rule in the US, but there is a duopoly of power, which prevents real political competition. Elections in the US, as well as in a majority of other ‘mature democracies’, are narrowed down to ready-made options and give freedom of very limited choice.

The system reminds us of ‘fast food’ philosophy - easy and fast, but one never gets what one really wants. This is not to challenge the fact that democracy is possibly the best form of governance, but it should be emphasised that it is far from perfect even in Western countries. Western democracy, as well as any other public institution, must not be idealised. After all, despite its development, ancient democracy was not able to avoid collapse. Unable to sustain the historical competition, ancient democracy was rejected by the European civilisation.

That, however, couldn’t stop democracy’s development. The empires and monarchies that replaced ancient democracy met the requirements of European society in the Middle Ages and were thus recognised as legitimate authority by the people. Modern human values cannot explain these changes, but laws of history can. This means a political authority’s success and legitimacy reflects its capability to respond to the challenges of the time.

Today, as in 1978, China is passing through a crucial time and it is probably worth raising the same question that helped it choose the correct solution 30 years ago.

As well as a truth, democracy has a strict criterion, which in this case is efficiency of public administration for the majority of the people. If we neglect efficiency, then our values will turn into a religious myth and will forever be blind to reality.

In addition to being efficient, a political regime needs to be stable, and for this reason it has to correspond not only to the aims and challenges of the time, but also comply with national traditions. Since stable political systems develop gradually, according to historical conditions, there is no common model of democracy even in Europe today. Constitutional monarchies, and parliamentary and presidential republics differ from each other - and radically so from classical democracy.

What’s more, models of democracy not only vary from country to country, but also change gradually with time. If democracy can continue developing, why can’t other political systems do the same?

Simply put, democracy means that people, of their own free will, allocate the authorities with rights and responsibilities, which turn out to be the basis of political stability. The easiest and most convincing way to fulfil that requirement is to hold national elections. It could also be done without carrying out the election procedure in its totality.

The tradition of direct participation dates back to Greek democracy and involves ethics as part of the modern political mechanism. It implies that politically active members of society, like members of a ruling party, are obliged to be engaged in almost every aspect of daily political and social life. The execution of these functions, however, imposes on them increased requirements.

Unlike Western democracy where voting in elections is voluntary and people vote once in several years, members of this party couldn’t avoid participating in public life, not even for a day. All that required special inter-party mechanisms, which are still unknown to Western democracies.

So if a ruling party readily responds to all the changes in society, there appears to be no need for a two- or multi-party system, as the mechanism under one-party leadership can be non the worse democratic. It is not easy to perfect this mechanism, and the best example was the Soviet Union. But it is still possible to move in this direction and the CPC stands a good chance of doing so.

In no country do people directly govern the state. Hence, modern democracy can be defined as a form of government, which reflects the interests of a nation. It is not the election itself, but political stability, which proves this. A nation can choose its leadership in ways different from elections, but the feature people consider the most important is its efficiency.

The author is director of the Center of Political Research, the Russian Academy of Sciences.              – China Daily