‘Whole Process People’s Democracy’ in China: What does it mean?
Ethnic minority delegates leave after the closing ceremony for China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 13, 2023. | Andy Wong / AP

The expulsion of two African American representatives from the Tennessee state legislature recently is only the latest in what seems to be a never-ending series of attacks on democracy in the United States. Add to it the endless voter suppression tactics like racist purges of voter rolls, bans on mail-in ballots, restrictive voter ID hurdles, reduced poll hours, and more.

And of course, one need look no further than to the machinations of former President Donald Trump in the wake of his defeat at the ballot box in 2020 to see these attacks underway at the highest level.

Though the United States was founded on democratic principles (“All men are created equal…”), they applied to only a small segment of the population—white men who owned property.

As a result, the last two-and-a-half centuries have been marked by a continuous struggle by the working class, African Americans and other people of color, women, Native Americans, and immigrants, among others, to make those principles a living reality for all people.

The simple fact is that those who exercise power, that is the moneyed class, don’t want to give up what they see as a good thing. Hence, the class struggle.

For over a hundred years, the United States government has set itself up as the arbiter around the world of what is to be considered “democracy.” From Woodrow Wilson’s “Make the world safe for democracy” during World War (1917-18) to Joe Biden’s two “Summits for Democracy” (2021 and 2023), there has been a consistency of message: The United States knows best.

The problem is that what the U.S. government projects as “democracy” is a version coming out of centuries of Western political thought, which it tries to apply to all peoples, in all places, at all times.

Democracy is a common aspiration of all peoples, but not all democracies are identical, even among the capitalist democracies of the West. The United States’ system (the presidential model) is markedly different in many ways from what exists in Britain (the parliamentary or Westminster model). And democracy today is vastly different from that which existed in the “Birthplace of Democracy”—Athens—in the sixth and fifth centuries, BCE.

More importantly, democracy differs markedly in other economic systems. Working class democracy, based on a socialist mode of production, draws on the basic ideas of political democracy, but expands and deepens it to the economy. For example, the idea of Bill of Rights Socialism, proposed by the Communist Party USA, applies this concept to the United States.

Unfortunately, there is little chance for Bill of Rights Socialism being adopted in the near future.

There is today, however, a working-class system of democracy in practice that is growing stronger every day—in China. Called “Whole Process People’s Democracy,” its basic ideas are virtually unknown in the United States. It is vital at this critical juncture in world history that people should learn about it because we can never live and work in peace with China if we do not know the basic facts about how that country functions.

It goes without saying that most Americans would call China an “authoritarian” government controlled and run by the Communist Party of China (CPC). While no one disputes the central role of the CPC in Chinese life, few people know that there are eight other political parties that have roles to play in the government and daily life. Under the Chinese constitution, these nine parties work within a system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation led by the Communist Party.

The core principles of Whole Process People’s Democracy were expressed in a 2021 newspaper article by Guo Wei, the Chinese ambassador to Seychelles. She explained:

“The most basic criterion for democracy is whether people have the right to participate extensively in national governance, whether people’s demands can be responded to and satisfied. In China, the people participate in the management of state affairs, social affairs, and economic and cultural affairs; they provide opinions and suggestions for the design of national development plans at the highest level and also contribute to the governance of local public affairs; they take part in democratic elections, consultations, decision-making, management, and oversight….”

China, much like the United States, is organized on a federal system. There are three basic levels of government: national, provincial (equivalent to U.S. states), and local—cities, counties, towns, and villages. Each level is governed by a congress elected directly by the people. At the national level is the National People’s Congress (NPC), which meets for two weeks every year.

But Whole Process People’s Democracy is more than that. At the local level it is called Community-Level Self-Governance. There is a network of local committees, be they urban resident committees, villager committees, or trade union committees. Today in China there are 112,000 urban committees, 503,000 villager committees, and 2,809,000 trade union committees. All committees are elected by secret ballot with open vote counting (with results announced on the spot).

The villager committees must have between three and seven members, include at least one female, and a member from an ethnic minority (if there are such in the village). The urban residents committees are similar, though they can have as many as nine members. All members serve terms of five years.

All committees are empowered to “carry out democratic consultations on local affairs in various forms, and practice democratic decision-making in handling community issues and public services through committee meetings and congresses.”

The third type of committee is the trade union committee. Found in private enterprises and public institutions, its main roles are to “advocate on behalf of employees on equal footing with employers.” The trade unions have the right to negotiate with their employers [to] seek “corrections” from the employers if they violate employee rights,” such as “deducting or delaying payment of employees’ wages, [or] failure to provide safe and healthy working conditions, extending working hours arbitrarily, infringing on the special rights and interests of female and juvenile employees, [and] other serious violations of employee labor rights and interests.”

These committees are funded through membership dues as well as via “employer contributions (employers must pay a monthly fee equal to 2% of the aggregate monthly wages of all the unionized employees.)” The whole discussion on the role of China’s trade unions, organized in the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is something for another day.

This description of aspects of China’s “Whole Process People’s Democracy” provides only the briefest and most general overview of a vast and complex subject. Yet, China’s ideas on democracy should stimulate a discussion that we in the United States need to have.

In the struggle for American democracy, the working people need a clear vision of what type of future they want, one based not on money but human needs. The People’s Republic of China provides a treasure trove of ideas to study.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article represents the opinions of its author.

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David Cavendish
David Cavendish

David Cavendish is a retired teacher, active in the union movement, the peace movement (many years in an anti-Iraq/Afghanistan War vigil), and other progressive political activities. He is a longtime contributor to People’s World. David Cavendish es un maestro jubilado, activo en el movimiento sindical, el movimiento por la paz y otras actividades políticas progresistas. Colabora desde hace mucho tiempo en People’s World.