Xi Jinping
Original publication: en.qstheory.cn

Democracy is Not an Ornament (2021)

14 minutes | English | China

Xi Jinping gave this speech at the Central People’s Congress Work Conference on 13 October 2021. It was later was published in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 5, 2022. What follows is an excerpt from the official English translation.


Official Summary [1]

Democracy is a common value of humanity and an ideal that has always been cherished by the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people. Over the past hundred years, the Party has led the people in realizing people’s democracy in China. The Chinese people now truly hold in their hands their own future and that of society and the country. The people’s status as masters of the country is the essence of people’s democracy.

China’s whole-process people’s democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the State. It is a model of socialist democracy that covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society. It is a true democracy that works.

Democracy is a concrete phenomenon that is constantly evolving. Rooted in history, culture and tradition, it takes diverse forms and develops along the paths chosen by different peoples based on their exploration and innovation. Democracy is not a decorative ornament, but an instrument for addressing the issues that concern the people. Democracy is the right of the people in every country, rather than the prerogative of a few nations.

Whether a country is democratic should be judged by its people, not dictated by a handful of outsiders. Whether a country is democratic should be acknowledged by the international community, not arbitrarily decided by a few self-appointed judges.

There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms. Assessing the myriad political systems in the world against a single yardstick and examining diverse political structures in monochrome is in itself undemocratic.

RS Summary [2]

Democracy is a value shared by all humanity and an ideal that the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people have always upheld. As we work to translate democratic values and ideals into sound and effective institutions and concrete and real democratic practice, we need to find the right systems, mechanisms, and approaches based on the integration of history and reality, theory and practice, and form and substance.

As I have said, the best way to evaluate whether a country’s political system is democratic and effective is to observe whether the succession of its leaders is orderly and law-based, whether the people can manage state and social affairs and economic and cultural undertakings in accordance with the law, whether the public can express their needs through open channels, whether all sectors of society can effectively participate in the country’s political affairs, whether the country’s decision making can be conducted in a rational and democratic manner, whether people of all fields can join the state leadership and administrative systems by way of fair competition, whether the governing party can lead state affairs in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and whether the exercise of power is subject to effective checks and oversight.

Democracy is not an ornament to be put on display, but an instrument for addressing the issues that concern the people. Whether a country is democratic or not depends on whether its people are truly the masters of the country. It depends on whether the people have the right to vote, and more importantly, the right to participate; what promises they are given during elections, and more importantly, how many of these promises are delivered after elections; what kind of political procedures and rules are set through state systems and laws, and more importantly, whether these systems and laws are truly enforced; and whether the rules and procedures for the exercise of power are democratic, and more importantly, whether the exercise of power is genuinely subject to public oversight and checks. If the people are only engaged with to solicit votes and then are left in the dark, if they must listen to grandiose election slogans but have no voice when the elections are over, or if they are only treated well by candidates during elections and are ignored after, this is not true democracy.

In a word, democracy is the right of the people of all countries, not the prerogative of a few nations. Whether a country is democratic should be judged by its people, not by a handful of nosy outsiders. In the international community, whether a country is democratic should be judged by community consensus, not by a few self-appointed judges. There is no uniform or single model of democracy; it comes in many forms. Assessing the world’s myriad political systems against a single yardstick and examining diverse political advancement in monochrome is, itself, inherently undemocratic.

The Communist Party of China has always upheld people’s democracy and has always adhered to the following basic ideas. First, people’s democracy is the life of socialism; without democracy, there would be no socialism, socialist modernization, or national rejuvenation. Second, the running of the country by the people is the essence and heart of socialist democracy. The very purpose of developing socialist democracy is to give full expression to the will of the people, protect their rights and interests, spark their creativity, and provide a system of institutions to ensure that it is they who are running the country. Third, the Chinese socialist path of political development is the right path, as it conforms to China’s national conditions and guarantees the position of the people as the masters of the country. It is the logical outcome of history, theory, and practice based on the strenuous efforts of the Chinese people in modern times. It is a requisite for maintaining the very nature of our Party and fulfilling its fundamental purpose. Fourth, China’s socialist democracy takes two important forms: one in which the people exercise rights by means of elections and voting, and another in which people from all walks of life are consulted extensively in order to reach the widest possible consensus on matters of common concern before major decisions are made. Together these make up the institutional features and strengths of China’s socialist democracy. Fifth, the key to developing China’s socialist democracy is to fully leverage its features and strengths. As we continue to advance socialist democracy with well-defined institutions, standards, and procedures, we can provide better institutional safeguards for our Party and country’s prosperity and longterm stability.

Deng Xiaoping once said,

The democracy in capitalist societies is bourgeois democracy — in fact, it is the democracy of monopoly capitalists. It is no more than a system of multi-party elections, separation of judicial, executive, and legislative powers, and a bicameral legislature. Ours is the system of people’s congresses and people’s democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party; we cannot adopt the practice of the West. The greatest advantage of the socialist system is that when the central leadership makes a decision, it is promptly implemented without interference from any other quarters. [3]

Since its 18th CPC National Congress, our Party has advanced whole-process people’s democracy as a key concept on the basis of a deeper understanding of the rules governing the development of democracy. Whole-process people’s democracy in China not only has a complete set of institutions and procedures, but also has full-fledged civil participation. China’s state system is a people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and farmers; its system of state power is the system of people’s congresses; and its basic political systems are the system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the CPC, the system of regional ethnic autonomy, and the system of primary-level self-governance. Through these, China has consolidated and developed the broadest possible patriotic united front, it has formed a comprehensive, extensive, and well-coordinated system of institutions that guarantee the people run the country, and it has put into place diverse, open, and orderly channels for democracy. This allows the entire people to engage in law-based democratic elections, consultations, decision making, management, and oversight and to manage state and economic, cultural, and social affairs in various ways and forms and in accordance with the law.

Whole-process people’s democracy in China integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state. It is a democracy that covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society. It is a socialist democracy to the broadest extent, of the truest nature, and to the greatest effect possible. We should continue to advance whole-process people’s democracy to see that, in concrete and tangible ways, the idea of the people as masters of the country is reflected in our Party’s governance policies and measures, in all aspects and levels of the work of Party and state institutions, and in our efforts to realize the people’s aspirations for a better life.

The people’s congress system is an important institutional vehicle for realizing whole-process people’s democracy in China. Under CPC’s leadership, we should continue to expand orderly political participation by the people, strengthen legal protection for human rights, and ensure that the people enjoy extensive rights and freedoms as prescribed by law. We should ensure that the people can exercise their lawful right to vote for people’s congress deputies through democratic elections, that the people’s rights to information, participation, expression, and oversight are implemented in every area and at every stage of people’s congress work, and that the people’s voice can be heard in all aspects of the decision making, execution, and oversight by the Party and the country. We should improve the democratic platforms and vehicles of people’s congresses through which the general public can express opinions, we should refine working mechanisms for soliciting public comments and collecting ideas from the people, and we should advance consultation led by people’s congresses and consultation on legislative issues, in an effort to protect the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people by taking into account all aspects of social conditions and public sentiment. We should enhance our study of and public communications on Chinese socialist democracy and the people’s congress system, elucidate the features and strengths of China’s political system, and share our story of democracy.

Upholding and improving the people’s congress system is the common responsibility of the whole of the Party and society. The entire Party and Chinese nation should stay confident in the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, continue to uphold and improve the people’s congress system, continue to consolidate and enhance political vitality, stability, and unity, and contribute China’s wisdom to the political advancement of humankind.

Skeptic’s Appendix

Some people react to all of the above with skepticism. The following resources are provided both for curious readers and for those who have to engage hostile audiences and might benefit from some empirical support.

  • According to data from polling firm Dalia Research cited by Bloomberg News, 84% of Chinese believe “Democracy is important” and 73% agree with the statement “My country is democratic.” For comparison, here are some other countries and their equivalent scores: Brazil (83/51), Japan (60/46), U.S. (73/49), Germany (85/67). [4]
  • According to Harvard University’s large-scale 2003-2016 study tracking the evolution of public opinion via 32,000 individual respondents, at the time of the study’s conclusion “95.5 percent of respondents were either ‘relatively satisfied’ or ‘highly satisfied’ with Beijing.” [5]
  • In his final report on global poverty as UN Special Rapporteur, New York University professor Philip Alston wrote, highlighting China’s “outsized” contribution to poverty alleviation world-wide: “[In China] the number of people below the International Poverty Line [$1.90/day] dropped from more than 750 million to 10 million between 1990 and 2015 […]. Without China, the global headcount under a $2.50 line barely changed between 1990 and 2010.” [6]
  • It feels silly to have to write this out, but I think it’s important to reassure anxious readers: China has elections. [7] Accessible accounts of the trajectory arc of career politicians are available online. [8] Similarly available, and perhaps more striking for Western audiences, are accounts of the consultative process (including responses to spontaneous online outrcy) [9] and the experience of high-tech small claims court. [10]

[1] “China issues white paper on its democracy” (4 December 2021), State Council of the People’s Republic of China. [web] 

[2] Not realizing there was an official summary, I originally made my own cut from the longer original. It’s kept here for completeness, since it has some interesting details not included in the official one. — R. D. (14 August 2023) 

[3] Deng Xiaoping, 1987. We Shall Speed Up Reform. [web] 

[4] Ben Schott, 2020-06-26. “China Is More Democratic Than America, Say the People.” Bloomberg News. [web] 

[5] Dan Harsha, 2020-07-09. “Taking China’s pulse.” The Harvard Gazette. [web] 

[6] Philip Alston, 2020-07. “The parlous state of poverty eradication: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.” Report submitted to the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council. [web] 

[7] State Council Information Office of the PRC, 2021-12-04. “China: Democracy That Works.” Xinhua. [web] 

[8] The Rise of Xi Jinping, 2020-09-15. [web] 

[9] Online Consultation, 2020-09-26. [web] 

[10] A Small Claims Court Case, 2021-02-22. [web]