From teahouses to Great Hall: How democracy works in China

BEIJING — Li Chaolan, a centenarian hailing from a mountain village in southwest China, has voted in the local people’s congress elections over a dozen times. She hopes people attending the ongoing national “two sessions” in Beijing will pay more attention to rural old-age care.

Meanwhile, teahouses in Linhuan, east China’s Anhui Province, are bustling with locals, as they gather to discuss the significant political event, looking for opportunities of development for the ancient town.

These stories offer a glimpse of how citizens in China, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s population, take part in the country’s genuine and effective democratic practice.

The ongoing sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) bear the mission to respond to the aspirations of the 1.4 billion Chinese people and bring them together to forge ahead.

China’s whole-process people’s democracy, which covers elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight, ensures that it is the people who are running the country.

VOTING WITH A CORN KERNEL

Li, from Ya’an City in Sichuan Province, recalled her first-ever experience of taking part in elections of deputies to people’s congresses.

“It was in the winter of 1953. We lined up and each cast a corn kernel as a ballot for our favorite candidate,” she said. “I was so excited that day that I barely slept.”

In September 1954, the first session of the first NPC was convened, establishing a system of people’s congresses as China’s fundamental political system.

As of the end of 2020, China had 2.62 million deputies to people’s congresses at all five levels. Of the total, 94.5 percent were from the county and township levels, all directly elected on a one-person-one-vote basis. Deputies to people’s congresses at the city, provincial and national levels are elected by people’s congresses at the next level below.

Li Chaolan, 106, casts her ballot in Xinhua Township of Tianquan County, Ya’an, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Oct. 15, 2021. (Xinhua)

Last October, Li Chaolan put the ballots once again into the mobile ballot boxes carried by the election staff to her door as more than 1 billion voters began to participate in a new round of nationwide elections to people’s congresses at the township and county levels.

“Every time a new term was about to begin, I was given a voter’s card and ballots,” Li said, expressing her pride at the fact that each ballot, including hers, counts.

From corn kernels to mobile ballot boxes, the times have changed, but the essence of people being the masters of their own country has not.

Since the initiation of reform and opening up in the late 1970s, the voter turnout rate for elections of deputies to people’s congresses at county and township levels has stayed at around 90 percent, far higher than that in local elections in many Western countries.

China’s deputies to people’s congresses do not work as full-time lawmakers but have their own jobs and careers. They come from all regions, ethnic groups, sectors and social groups. Even the ethnic group with the smallest population has at least one deputy to the NPC.

Democracy is not a decorative ornament, but a means of solving problems.

Proposals and suggestions put forward by national legislators and political advisors during last year’s “two sessions” have prompted the formulation of more than 1,600 government policies and measures.

Among them, proposals on better protecting laborers’ rights in the new economy, such as food-delivery and car-hailing industries, have been embodied in a government guideline released in July 2021.

“The basic interests of ordinary people in China are represented in government to a far greater degree than the case in the West,” said Carlos Martinez, a British author and political commentator.

According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust among Chinese citizens in their government in 2021 was 91 percent, ranking first among the 28 countries surveyed. The figure is consistent with the findings of a Harvard Kennedy School survey.

DIALOGUE OVER SIP OF TEA

Linhuan Town residents begin their morning with a cup of tea.

Over the past centuries, the flourishing tea culture in the town with over 20 teahouses has established a custom of conversing while drinking tea, which also prompted the inception of an NPC deputy studio in the teahouse, where deputies at the county and township levels come and chat with residents every month.

Sitting around a boiling pot of water, Liu Jinhua and several fellow villagers are sipping tea while discussing a suggestion to be raised with the deputies this month — building a proper public toilet.

“We’ve got different ideas about where to build it, so we are here today to discuss and find the best venue,” the villagers were told.

During the past five years, over 300 pieces of suggestions involving this town have been accepted by the deputies and dealt with, with issues ranging from road construction, irrigation, street light installation to protection of old trees.

There are also mediation rooms in the teahouses. A lawsuit could be averted over a pot of tea, thanks to the mediators.

Residents enjoy tea at a teahouse in Linhuan Town of Huaibei, east China’s Anhui Province, Dec. 1, 2021. (Xinhua/Zhou Mu)

Democratic consultation and management at grassroots like the town of Linhuan also enable foreigners living in China to chip in.

In Shanghai, about seven hours’ drive from Linhuan, Noyan Rona, a Turkish banker who has lived in the city for more than 20 years, is keen on addressing flaws in his community.

From environmental hygiene, food safety, translation of road names to the installation of railings, many of his suggestions have been adopted. One suggestion has even been incorporated into a revision of the individual income tax law.

Rona believes that making suggestions is not about complaining, nor just about raising questions. It is about observing things from a certain perspective and over a period of time, and offering solutions.

From “offline exchange of views” in teahouses, under the trees, in the courtyards, and conference rooms, to “online discussions” enabled by more than 1 billion Chinese internet users, the Chinese people have explored diverse and effective consultation means with their wisdom and innovations.

When the authorities solicited public opinions online for the drafting of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), a key blueprint for the country’s economic and social development, in August 2020, more than 1 million comments poured in.

Laurence J. Brahm, a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, said that Chinese democracy, which is different from that in the West, is a system of consensus-building. “It is quiet, and in many ways, like Tai Chi.”

“DIRECT TRAINS” EN ROUTE TO EFFECTIVE DECISION-MAKING

Luo Xiaoyou, a convenience store employee in Yiwu City, east China’s Zhejiang Province, feels proud that his opinion on marking the expiration dates on food packaging more noticeably has made an impact on the national law on anti-food waste.

When attending a grassroots seminar for soliciting suggestions on the new legislation in October 2020, Luo’s opinion was recorded and sent directly to the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee.

This was made possible by the grassroots contact stations set up by the commission. Dubbed “direct trains,” they act as a direct link between ordinary people and China’s top legislature, demonstrating the country’s democratic decision-making.

Over 20 such stations have been established in China since 2015, covering more than two-thirds of provincial-level regions, allowing people from all walks of life to contribute wisdom to the national legislation.

Photo taken on Nov. 26, 2021 shows a meeting held at a grassroots contact station set up by the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Hongqiao subdistrict of Shanghai, east China. (Xinhua/Liu Ying)

Legislation is a difficult and time-consuming process. For example, the enactment of the e-commerce law took a total of five years, during which three rounds of public opinion solicitation and four deliberations took place.

The final provisions lay more emphasis on consumers’ rights, especially their personal safety, and appropriately increase the responsibilities and obligations of e-commerce operators.

In tough situations, China’s implementation of democratic centralism guarantees effective, scientific and people-centered decision-making.

When China’s Hubei Province was facing the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, the government made a quick decision to build makeshift hospitals to treat patients with mild symptoms, which played a key role in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

This stands in stark contrast with some countries where people have been involved in an endless fight over whether masks should be mandated in public.

The Chinese government also attaches great importance to the implementation of all decisions and never made empty promises to its people.

Every year, after the government work report is deliberated and adopted by the NPC during the “two sessions,” the State Council will soon break down tasks, specify the departments involved and time limits, and strictly supervise their implementation.

THE GREAT HALL-MARK OF DEMOCRACY

A draft amendment to the Organic Law of the Local People’s Congresses and Local People’s Governments is on the tables of the national legislators and political advisors at the Great Hall of the People in downtown Beijing where the “two sessions” are being convened.

Whole-process people’s democracy is expected to be incorporated into the law stipulating the organization and operation of local legislatures and governments to ensure the multi-layered and all-round democracy affecting 1.4 billion people exerts its strength.

The annual gatherings of the NPC and the National Committee of the CPPCC bring together thousands of national legislators and political advisors, including Chinese leaders, to engage in in-depth discussions on major national development plans and assess important issues involving people’s livelihood.

On this platform of China’s highest state power, New China’s first Constitution was introduced, an end to a 2,000-year-old agricultural tax was declared, the country’s first-ever Civil Code dedicated to “maximum protection of people’s rights” was adopted, and the foreign investment law, which aims to create a level playing field where all investors home and abroad can participate and compete, was passed.

The NPC deputies have been exercising state power and turning the Party’s propositions and the will of the people into the will of the state and collective action after going through legal procedures, highlighting the integration of the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the people’s status as masters of the country, and law-based governance.

The democratic system that China operates has enabled the vast country to achieve rapid economic development and long-term social stability over the years.

Today China has the world’s largest social security system, has successfully eliminated absolute poverty, achieved an overwhelming victory in the fight against corruption and enhanced national security on all fronts. Its GDP has surpassed 100 trillion yuan (15.83 trillion U.S. dollars), with the per capita GDP exceeding 10,000 dollars.

Paul Tembe, a South African sinologist, noted that China’s whole-process people’s democracy serves common interests and is associated with good governance.

In a richly diverse world, democracy comes in many forms. The whole-process people’s democracy offers a new choice for the political advancement of humanity.

Mao Zhenfang, an NPC deputy from Yuangen, a village in Sichuan’s Ya’an City, brought with her a suggestion on improving rural old-age services at this year’s NPC session, based on extensive consultation with elderly rural residents like Li Chaolan.

“Democracy is about creating means to make every voice heard,” said Mao. Enditem

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