Ballot Box China: Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One-Party State

August 18, 2011

China is democratic - according to the Chinese Communist Party. Kerry Brown knows better. He does not portray China as democratic under the normal definition, but he does see China as practising democracy at the grass-roots level. The ballot box in the title of this book refers to elections at the village level, which were introduced at the end of the 1980s. To Brown, village elections matter because "they occur in a part of the country and in a sector of society which history tells us matter hugely", and because they "are connected to the larger debate about democracy in China, and that is connected to a whole constellation of issues, from building the rule of law, to creating civil society, to the very issue of legitimacy of the CCP itself".

Brown is right that village elections tell us much about the nature of the regime. As China rises and is being taken seriously as a global power, the rest of the world needs to understand it better, including in particular the nature of its politics. The main body of this book does not, however, really support the argument that village elections in China are in any real sense democratic. As Brown observes, "Village elections were not meant to be the seeds of anything else." He adds: "There are plenty of cases of Party branch secretaries (or the real power holders) viewing these elections as a threat, trying to stop people standing who might compete with them, or simply obstructing the whole process". That elections at the village level are taking place at all represents a huge change from the old Maoist near-totalitarianism. But holding elections that do not offer voters a real choice, or the opportunity for any political party apart from the governing party to win, is hardly democratic.

Brown is nonetheless excited by the village elections. It appears to reflect his obvious devotion to China and the Chinese, which seems to have affected his and indeed many China-watchers' judgement. This may well be the reason why he is willing to accept the Communist Party's assertion of "Chinese democracy" - by which it means "intra-party democracy". In other words, the Party would allow more candidates to compete for offices, but all must be loyal Party members. In reality, it is just a means to enhance governance capacity. It also means that Chinese citizens can have "free" elections at the village level, provided the results will not produce unacceptable surprises to the Party.

He also seems to have accepted the Party's monopoly of "Chineseness". Thus, the Leninist concept of democratic centralism, which is the essence of "Chinese democracy", is regarded as Chinese. But it is not. Leninism is a Soviet import, not a Chinese invention. The extensive introduction of consultation after the end of the Maoist era, and village elections, which are almost invariably guided by the Party, fit in better with this Leninist concept than with democracy. If one rejects claims of Leninism's Chinese character, "Chinese democracy" is neither Chinese nor democratic.

Should non-China specialists read this book? Yes, if you want a highly readable and engaging introduction to the current political scene in China, although one should bear in mind the caveats above. Critical readers will in any event make up their own minds whether they will accept Brown's, or the Communist Party's, definitions of democracy as applied to China. Aside from this interpretation issue, the book provides an easy-to-read short overview of where China has come from, and where the Party is taking it in terms of the general direction of political development.

Ballot Box China: Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One-Party State

By Kerry Brown. Zed Books. 184pp, £70.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9781848138193 and 38209. Published 14 April 2011

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