Page last updated at 00:13 GMT, Friday, 5 March 2010

China's democratic 'window dressing'

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China (3 March 2010)
China is keen to refute accusations that it is a one-party state

University professor Xu Hui is a rare breed of politician in China - he is not a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr Xu is the vice-chairman of the China Democratic League (CDL), one of eight non-communist political parties in China.

China's government makes a big deal of these parties in an attempt to prove that the country is not a one-party state.

Their members are taking part in this year's annual parliamentary session, which begins on Friday.

But while they do offer advice to the communists - and sometimes criticism - these parties are little more than "window dressing".

In reality, the Communist Party stifles genuine, open debate and often locks away those who express alternative political agendas.

The eight democratic parties, as they are termed, were formed before the communists took power in China in 1949.

They include the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (RCCK), the China Association for Promoting Democracy (CAPD) and the Chinese Peasants' and Workers' Democratic Party (CPWDP).

Mr Xu is vice-chairman of the biggest party, the CDL, which has more than 200,000 members scattered across the country.

Party members are, like Mr Xu, mostly intellectuals; many of them are involved in the education or health sectors.

The vice-chairman is currently in Beijing to take part in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body that meets at the same time as China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC).


As he relaxed in his hotel room before the start of the CPPCC, he told the BBC that his party plays a vital role in China's political system.

"We go to the countryside, we go to factories, and we go to schools and universities," said the softly spoken professor.

Xu Hui
In our system it's much easier to reach agreement and to put our policies into reality
Xu Hui

"We talk to people and try to sum up their problems, reach recommendations and then present our reports to the government."

Sometimes the government acts on this advice, sometimes it does not, said Mr Xu.

He said his party, on occasion, disagreed with the communist-led government - as with the pace of change in the education sector.

But the eight democratic parties do not get into public arguments with the communists - that is not their job.

Under the Chinese system, the role of these non-communist political parties is to advise the communists, not to challenge their position as the ruling party.

As the government states on its main website: "The [Chinese Communist Party] and the democratic parties are totally equal under the constitution, but politically the latter are subject to the leadership of the former."

They might be subject to communist control, but the existence of these parties allows the Chinese government to claim that the country is not a one-party state.

Showing people that they listen to those outside the communist party is important to China's leaders, according to Willy Lam, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

He said the government has often put these non-Communist Party members in senior positions at both the central and provincial level.

But he added: "It's not too cynical to say that this is just window dressing."

'Not ready'

Real political debate is not encouraged by the government in China; it is conducted in internet chat rooms or in the privacy of people's own homes.

Liu Xiaobo (file image courtesy of Reporters Without Borders)

People who openly challenge the government are often prosecuted.

Writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison in December for co-writing Charter '08, a manifesto calling for political change in China.

One of the things Mr Liu called for in the manifesto is an abolition of the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

But that is not something that Mr Xu thinks could - or even should - happen in China in the foreseeable future. He said the country is simply not ready for it.

Indeed, in some respects Mr Xu thinks China's political system has advantages over those used in the West.

"In our system it's much easier to reach agreement and to put our policies into reality," he said, referring to the lack of formal constraints on the ruling party's power.

"In some countries they spend a very long time discussing a small problem. If they cannot get agreement, the work is just put aside."

And that, for Mr Xu, appears to be the heart of the issue. Getting things done efficiently with the minimum of fuss - and no dissent - is the ideal system. No wonder the Communist Party likes him.

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