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.