China cannot rush reforms needed to democratise its legislative system
Zhou Zunyou says any solution to widespread vote-buying and other problems must be orderly
On January 2, a senior Chinese official, Tong Mingqian, was reported to have been sacked and expelled from the Communist Party for his role in an electoral scandal in Hengyang , Hunan province. A total of 518 delegates of the city's 529-member People's Congress were found to have taken bribes for electing 56 delegates to the provincial assembly. Three other delegates were accused of neglect of duty.
The crackdown was part of China's ongoing anti-corruption campaign initiated by the Communist Party's new leaders.
It also exposed the scope and gravity of graft in Chinese political life. Of the 529 Hengyang lawmakers, only eight were not involved. Authorities said the scandal represents a serious challenge to the so-called "people's congress system", one of China's fundamental political systems.
In China, there are five levels of people's congresses: the National People's Congress and people's congresses in provinces, cities, counties and townships. These congresses are similar to parliaments in the West.
Delegates in counties and townships are "directly" elected through a system of "one man, one vote". At the national, provincial and municipal levels, they are elected "indirectly" from and by people's congresses at the next lower level.
Although under Chinese law, all congresses should be established through democratic - either direct or indirect - elections, the Communist Party takes a firm control of elections at every level. While most candidates are party members, those from outside are usually handpicked by the party.
China's people's congresses are not terribly democratic, by Western standards; they act only as a rubber stamp for party decisions. But membership does provide substantial benefits, such as status, power and privilege, which are coveted by party officials and wealthy businesspeople, especially as there are no effective legal mechanisms to guarantee fair and transparent elections.
When the party in recent years began to introduce competition, albeit limited, into elections in the hope of promoting democracy, this also opened the door to collective vote-buying. In the case of Hengyang, the rampant vote-buying mainly resulted from intense competition in which 93 candidates vied for 76 seats on the provincial body.
When the scandal came to light, some liberal intellectuals sarcastically commented that "buying votes" was better than "buying appointments", the implication being that most lawmakers are in fact appointed by higher officials and that involves bribery.
The party realised long ago the importance of democracy. In a conversation between Mao Zedong and Chinese educator Huang Yanpei in 1945, Mao famously said that democracy was the party's cure for avoiding the usual historical cycle whereby political forces witnessed a rapid rise and a hasty demise due to serious corruption. Since 1954, the Chinese constitution has proudly declared that all power belongs to the people.
Last December, President Xi Jinping recalled Mao's words on the "historical cycle", sending a clear message that severe corruption is threatening the survival of the party. Almost seven decades on, the party is still struggling with the spectrum of this "historical cycle".
Democracy is not only crucial to the survival of the party; it is also vital for the future of the nation. As such, and given the great importance attached to it, the tempo of democratisation has been unsatisfactorily slow.
This does not mean, however, that more democracy brings better results, or that faster democratisation is more desirable. Democratisation alone cannot eradicate corruption, as shown by the experience of countries such as India and the Philippines, where rapid democratisation has led to systems that are corrupt, chaotic and incompetent.
In an attempt to make the people's congress system move with the times, a series of major - if not fundamental - reform measures were mapped out at the party Central Committee's recent third plenum to bolster their role. Of particular note was a proposal to establish liaison offices and internet platforms to strengthen relations between delegates and the people. The resolution stressed the importance of orderly political participation by the people.
Party leaders clearly prefer a process of incremental reform of the system. This is no surprise, given the deeply rooted Chinese tradition of "rule of man" and a transitional society full of intense conflicts.
On the one hand, more fundamental reforms are needed to ensure that the people are genuine masters of the country.
On the other, China should heed the lessons of gradual and orderly democratisation from the experiences of both successful and unsuccessful Asian states.
Zhou Zunyou is head of the China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law