Political Restructuring in China – A Template on How China can Transition from Authoritarianism to Democracy!

Posted on | maart 25, 2011 | No Comments

Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called for political reform once again, while at the same time he rejected (again) any comparisons between his country and the autocracies now collapsing in North Africa and the Middle East. Premier Wen is right when he says that the current socio-economic conditions in China are nothing like the ones of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, or Libya. However, China is in desperate need of some kind of political reform plan that will lead to an orderly transition, from the current one-party system to a democratic society. Premier Wen is right to claim that “it’s by no means easy to pursue political restructuring in a country with 1.3 billion people”, and that restructuring “needs to take place in an orderly way, under the leadership of the party.” (Quotes from Washington Post article).  

Premier Wen’s approach focuses on political reforms only at the lowest levels of government (village, and maybe city), and always under the leadership/control of the Communist Party. However, there is a very adequate constitutional model for politically restructuring the whole country peacefully, and without any major disruptions to the status quo. Like so many other ideological innovations, this constitutional model comes from the British, with some modifications/improvements by the Americans. I am referring to the bicameral legislative model of the UK and the U.S., which has proven to work well with large federal-style structured countries (like China), and could be easily adopted in China by the Communist Party.

In the UK, all political powers emanate from the Parliament, which is composed of the House of Commons (directly representing the people) and the House of Lords (which used to represent the aristocracy, but now is composed of appointees of the political parties). In the U.S., all powers reside with the Congress, which is composed of the House of Representatives (directly representing the people) and the Senate (which used to represent the sovereign State governments, but now is also representing the people). In both countries, political power was divided between the people and the establishment (aristocracy or the sovereign States), but with time both systems gradually shifted to a more democratic and representative models. [More recently the EU, with its Parliament and the Council of Ministers, is also evolving into the same bicameral legislative model of governance.]

In China, the Communist party can also adopt such a system of governance (where the main political organ is a bicameral legislature) and gradually transition more power from the party to the people. Starting at the city or provincial level, Beijing can create bicameral legislatures where one chamber is composed by directly elected representatives of the people, and the other chamber composed of appointed representatives of the communist party. Executives at the city level (Mayor) and at the provincial level (Governor) can be either appointed by the national government, selected by a vote of the bicameral legislature, or candidates can be approved by the bicameral legislature (regional or national) for direct election by the people.

Similarly, at the national level, legislative power can be divided between the National People’s Congress (representing directly the people – or in the beginning appointed by provincial bicameral legislatures) and the Central Committee (representing the Communist Party). Executive powers will rest with the President and the State Council, which in the beginning will be composed of candidates recommended by the Communist Party and elected by the national bicameral legislature (or by all the provincial bicameral legislatures – a variation to the U.S. Electoral College).

The final compromise will be the one between security and law, between the military and the courts. As a liberator of the country from the ‘evil foreign invaders’, the Communist Party can claim to have some moral standing in being in charge of the armed forces. The current Central Military Commission can continue to administer the armed forces. On the other hand, allowing for an independent and impartial judiciary will go a long way in alleviating the people’s concerns about democratic legitimacy and government corruption. A judiciary, with the Supreme People’s Court at the top as a western-style constitutional court with judicial review responsibilities, with justices selected by the national-level legislature for their legal expertise and not for their ‘party affiliation’ would be the most appropriate way to safeguard this new hybrid system of governance.

The bottom line is that the federal system of governance, where political powers are separated at the national and local level, provides an excellent starting point from which authoritarian countries like China can implement political restructuring. Making the legislature the primary political body, and then dividing it into two parts of equal powers but representing divergent constituencies, allows both for a check on the powers of government and for harmonious inclusion of conflicting elements of society. One can adjust the speed, composition (only restructure the legislative, but not the executive), or the level (start with just the cities and provinces, before you implement nationally) of restructuring, but the federal model of governance should be seriously considered by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

This model can work in many other troubled places around the world: in Iraq, Lebanon, and Bosnia, where there are multiple ethnic groups living together; in Libya with its 140 distinct tribes; in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the royals or the mullahs want to stay in power just like the Communist Party in China. Wherever you have a specific type of an establishment (ethnic, religious, ideological or political) that does not want to relinquish power to the people, that’s when a bicameral legislature like the U.S., UK and EU, can help with the transition.

China might not be like North Africa or the Middle East, but Beijing better start looking into transition reforms non-the-less… you never know what to expect from people these days!!!

AUTHOR: Nasos Mihalakas
URL: http://mihalakas.wordpress.com and http://chinatrade.foreignpolicyblogs.com/
E-MAIL: nasos.mihalakas [at] gmail.com


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