A Shot Across the Bo

The Chinese Communist Party's takedown of party boss Bo Xilai shows just exactly how much talk about "democracy" it's willing to listen to.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

BEIJING – China is a democracy. Just ask the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who was abruptly removed from office on Thursday, March 15. "Multiparty cooperation is an important symbol of democracy," he said in February in the lead-up to the National People’s Congress (NPC) annual meeting, the pageant where delegates pass laws and revel in Communist Party rule. Last week, during his first public statements about a brewing corruption scandal involving his former police chief, he told reporters, "We need to take the road of democratic rule."

Saying the word "democracy" in China isn’t necessarily a crime, and many high-ranking officials pay lip service to the term. But perhaps Bo said it a bit too loudly. Nowhere is the gulf between propaganda and reality so wide as in the Communist Party’s view of its own democracy. Despite curbs on freedom of speech and expression, persistent crackdowns, and the lack of universal suffrage, the Communist Party portrays the country it rules as a multiparty democracy, brandishing its eight "democratic" parties as proof. Bo’s comments held no subversive irony for the censors; in fact, the second comment headlined Bo’s political obituary published March 14 in the state-controlled media. Bo was a good Communist, but also a bit too much of a populist for China’s tightly controlled system. He made the mistake of trying to rally public opinion in favor of his now-defunct bid to join the Politburo Standing Committee — behaving almost like China was the democracy he said it was — instead of leaving the decision entirely up to the party. And the party always wins.

Communist cadres can praise democracy, as long as it’s China’s. Fang Ning, who runs the Political Science Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has argued that China’s democratic system is superior to that of the West; he thinks capitalist democracy is merely a tool to "gain legitimacy for a regime," something he probably learned to recognize after studying his own country’s model. Indeed, China, which boasts eight "democratic parties," puts the United States’ duopolistic system to shame, numerically. So does the sheer size of the NPC, which stands at close to 3,000 members, with some 800 coming from the "democratic parties" that are permitted to exist — as enshrined in the Chinese Constitution — "under the leadership of the Communist Party of China." A 2007 white paper describes this arrangement as an "inevitable choice" — an oxymoron much like the "people’s democratic dictatorship," also mentioned in the Constitution. The democratic parties cooperate with the regime, not oppose it. "They supposedly give advice," says Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "However, their real purpose is for PR reasons: to put together a facade of unity. And they have made it clear they follow the instructions of the party."

The NPC and its sister conference, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, where delegates tackle various pressing social issues — from the alarming lack of civil liberties to the alarming lack of breast-feeding — are meant to proudly advertise China’s brand of democracy in action. This year’s pomp was slightly undercut by Bo’s fall from grace; it’s not often that a party secretary gets summarily dismissed at the end of a normally bland legislative session. Despite the drama, the democratic parties dutifully played their role. The China Democratic National Construction Association diligently raised concerns over wage arrears for migrant workers, while the Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party conscientiously brought up soil pollution.

The eight junior parties, whose membership ranges from 2,000 to 200,000, have no reason to challenge the 80 million members of the Communist Party, not only because they have no effective power, but also because they depend on the Communist Party for their existence. They fall under the purview of the United Front, a government department that is also responsible for galvanizing overseas Chinese support for the People’s Republic. "They are adjuncts or subordinate units" of the Communist Party, says Lam, the functional equivalent of a toothless corporate board from the Enron era. For the average Chinese person, they’re just decoration: huaping, or "flower vases."

Perhaps the biggest display of those huaping is in Chongqing, Bo’s seat of power (until recently), at the Democratic Parties History Museum of China. The museum, which opened in March 2011, is attached to a site of historic significance for the democratic parties: a villa where the China Democratic League (CDL) — currently the largest democratic party — was founded in 1941. Mao Zedong visited several times during the war against the Japanese, when Chongqing was the Nationalist capital and Mao was embroiled in unsuccessful negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek to unite against the invaders. He dubbed the place the "home of democracy."

The irony of Bo’s five-year reign over the birthplace of Chinese democracy is that it has been anything but democratic. His "Chongqing model" involved cracking down on the mafia and resurrecting the Communist Party’s red roots through patriotic singing campaigns, while hounding defense lawyers and threatening newspapers with lawsuits. Last year, when the Chongqing Municipal Committee voted in favor of a list of items intended to increase the democratic rule of law, Bo explained what it actually meant: that "leaders of all levels … shouldn’t make rash decisions." Democracy, for the Communist Party, is a sort of code for wider consultation and greater accountability — but changing the system is not an option.

When the Democratic Parties History Museum was opened, it wasn’t to celebrate democracy — or consultation and accountability, for that matter — but instead to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), a little odd given that the party isn’t really overtly featured in the museum. Out of ideological arrogance, the Communist Party maintains that the socialist democracy it practices is more enlightened. But the party’s presence is felt everywhere. At the museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Bo was quoted as saying, "The CPC’s history is the history of the democratic parties." The exhibits feature sanitized histories of each, from the China Zhi Gong Party, which consists mostly of returned overseas Chinese and their descendents, to the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang, which was once committed to overthrowing the Chiang regime.

But for a sense of intellectual hierarchy, visitors need only look to the museum’s hushed grand foyer, where a tableau of bronze sculptures depicts the leaders of the democratic parties gathered around Mao, listening — the silence echoing the hollowness of his promises of a democratic China. Although some parties, like the CDL, embraced the Communists during the war and in the early days of the new People’s Republic, their history has been co-opted, which makes it hard to praise them for any accomplishments without stealing the credit. The museum compensates by taking on the resigned tone of a parent whose kid always comes in second place. "The party is the head," said a woman who worked at the museum and gave her last name as Zhang, "and the democratic parties revolve around it."

The exhibits unsurprisingly place great emphasis on the parties’ constructive roles at meetings of little or no importance, their frequent field inspections of car factories, and the plaques they received for promoting education campaigns. (One law they seem to have managed to get adopted is an amendment to the Chinese Constitution explicitly recognizing their subordinate status.) Most of their efforts are described in empty terms reminiscent of a sketchy résumé: "contributing suggestions," "participating and deliberating," "answering the call." But despite the museum’s best efforts to dilute their history, it’s hard not to forget that these parties, all founded before the 1949 creation of the People’s Republic of China, were at one time actually democratic and possessed a real hope for the new China. They wrongly believed that cooperating with the CPC at the end of the war might actually engender democracy instead of stifle it. Zhang Lan, one of the founders of the CDL, became a vice chairman of the People’s Republic (the equivalent of vice president), but died before the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1957, when Mao asked Chinese intellectuals to contribute advice for running the country — only to have many imprisoned for speaking out. During the Cultural Revolution, the National People’s Congress stopped its annual meetings, and the eight "democratic parties," already under Communist Party control, effectively ceased to exist. Revived after Mao, "there was hope [the democratic parties] would become a new avenue for reform," says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. But after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, "they were called on to toe the line."

Today the parties are shadows of their former selves. In fact, they aren’t really parties at all, and they don’t appeal to those with dissident or liberal democratic views. Anybody who tries to start his or her own new party is likely to be exiled or thrown in jail. As James D. Seymour, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, observed in work done in the late 1980s, the eight satellite parties have taken on a corporatist flavor. The members of the Jiu San Society consist mostly of intellectuals in the sciences and technology; the China Association for Promoting Democracy is made up of intellectuals in culture, education, and publishing; members of the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League are mostly Taiwanese in favor of reunification.

Although the parties have grown at a moderate pace in recent years, the Community Party restricts membership, and they aren’t always easy to join. The application process, at least in the 1980s, was so rigorous that the most common reason for rejection was not having a senior enough background in one’s given field, according to Seymour. This selectivity has allowed the Community Party to cultivate a pool of quasi-independent intellectuals who can be tapped for advice. For those intellectuals, joining can have some perks as well: greater access to the people in power than they would have as nonmembers and even the chance of being picked for a real government role (the current minister for science and technology is a member of the China Zhi Gong Party). When I reached a member of the Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party — the party that brought up soil pollution at the NPC — I asked how many delegates her party had sent to the highest congress in the land. "That’s something I don’t know," she said, refusing to give her name. "This is just the propaganda department."

In the end, Bo, it seems, might have benefited from a little more democracy. There are no opposition parties to protest his dismissal, no independent media that will listen to him contest it. And with no way for him to defy the Communist Party’s authority, he’ll likely become a prisoner of history, just like the museum he helped create.

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