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Erasing for China’s future

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

China’s leadership is once again preparing for a battle of the systems after US President Joe Biden declared its motto: “Democracy versus Authoritarianism”. Party leader Xi Jinping retaliated with: “Real democracy versus false democracy.” And during a conference last week, he gave the starting signal. He praised China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), called a “pseudo-parliament” in the West. Among the Chinese people, its deputies, who meet once a year in Beijing’s “Great Hall of the People”, were once known as “hand-raisers” because they simply rubber-stamped everything that the government put on the table.

They are now allowed to vote electronically via a simple push of a button. However, they must do this in such a way that the person sitting next to them will notice when they press no. Xi, however, praises the system of people’s congresses as the hallmark of a flawless democracy into which China’s socialist system of rule has been transformed, especially under his leadership. He even coined a new word for it.

For two days, the 300 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party met in secret. The public learned of their meeting – on Wednesday and Thursday of last week – only after it had ended. It wasn’t until Thursday night that China’s CCTV news station revealed what Xi said in a 15-minute summary. Addressing China’s most powerful officials – none of whom are freely and democratically elected – he called the People’s Congress system “a great creation in the political history of the human race by our party, and a significant brand new system in the history of the political development of our country and even that of the world.”

Because the traditional concept of “people’s democracy” alone is no longer suitable for propaganda purposes, since it is reminiscent of the haggard Eastern Bloc, Xi coined the new word of a “whole-process procedural people’s democracy” (全过 程人民民主). According to it, people’s congresses were the “chain of connected individual links of an all-embracing and all-covering, most far-reaching, truest and most effective socialist democracy” (是全链条、全方位、全覆盖的民主,是最广泛、最真实、最管用的社会主义民主).

Of the Western system, he only sneered, “It is not real democracy when the people are roused only at election time but are put to sleep again afterward; when they are told the most beautiful slogans during elections but have not the slightest say afterward; when they are flattered only to vote, but are plunged into obscurity afterward.” (如果人民只有在投票时被唤醒、投票后就进入休眠期,只有竞选时聆听天花乱坠的口号、竞选后就毫无发言权,只有拉票时受宠、选举后就被冷落,这样的民主不是真正的民主)。

State-owned enterprises produce everything China’s People’s Congress deputies need for their meetings. In the IT age of smartphones and tablets, pencils for taking notes and erasers for corrections are still part of the package, always with the imprint “Great Hall of the People”.

Why does Xi resort to such ideological pull-ups, claiming that China’s democracy provides for “orderly and legal succession of leadership,” for “effective controls and balances on power,” for “the broadest participation of the people”? According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP), Beijing is responding to the two major democracy summits announced for December by US President Joe Biden. Xi alluded to this in his speech: Competition between political systems is a “key aspect” for competition between nations and could become a “key advantage for the country in gaining the strategic initiative.”

Xi’s calculation goes even further: With his conference, he incapacitated the much-lauded People’s Congress (NPC). News agency Xinhua revealed it was “the first time in the history of the CCP and in the history of the work of the People’s Congress that the Party Central Committee held a work conference on the NPC.” The conference was titled “Central People’s Congress Work Conference.” (中央人大工作会议). Hidden behind this is Xi’s message for the upcoming 2022 election party congress, where he plans to have his sole rule extended: China’s party does not need political reforms that could empower the People’s Congress to limit its absolute rule. After all, the People’s Congress is already a perfect democratic system.

In truth, the same spectacle occurs in China’s socialist parliament every year when its 3,000 or so voting deputies gather for the NPC session. China’s premier opens the mammoth session, which lasts 10 to 14 days, on the set date of March 5th with a report on the state of the nation. At the same time, he will also introduce the government’s new annual plan, laws, and plans. Accredited correspondents are allowed to listen to what the MPs have to say in the following days. Divided into dozens of small groups, they read out prepared eulogies. Sometimes they supplement what has been said with constructive proposals.

Deputies are also provided with teacup coasters, napkins, and toothpicks. All imprinted with “Great Hall of the People”.

I had stowed away special mementos of China’s annual parliament play in my luggage when I returned to Germany in late 2019 after 22 years as a Beijing correspondent. I brought with me a small collection of multicolored pencils, pencil sharpeners, scribbling paper, and erasers issued straight by the headquarters of the People’s Congress. They all had the words “Great Hall of the People” printed on them, as well as on combs or shoeshine utensils. Basically, on everything that a Chinese People’s Deputy needs to fulfill his parliamentary duties. State-owned light industry enterprises supply the deputies with these items.

To the outside world, Beijing gives the impression that its deputies actually had something to say or write. The tools of the trade for this are available in small takeaway trays at the entrance to their meeting rooms. I packed a few pencils and other utensils for myself at the end of each debate. I was particularly fond of the erasers. Each year, I would check to see if, in the much-vaunted new era, erasers finally became incompatible with the technology age. But nothing changed, year after year, just as it did at the People’s Congress itself. Despite allowing “no” votes, I never witnessed China’s deputies ever reject a government proposal.

Under Xi, China is increasingly detaching itself from the world. It is no longer just highlighting its independent development, history, culture, and values. Now it wants to set global standards in technology and society. And in addition to its own version of a market economy and globalization, China is now invoking its own democracy, which is superior to all others.

Combs, shoe polishers, or tea mugs are also included.

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