China's Democratic Sham

China is notoriously secretive; its government mechanics inscrutable. The constitution says that power belongs to the people, but in reality the rights of the people belong to the Communist Party and its leaders, from whom workers and peasants receive scant attention. The CCP claims to have delivered a democratic revolution, but the country remains one of the world's most undemocratic. So irreconcilable are these paradoxes that the 16th Party Congress that will convene next week cannot hope but to show itself as a democratic sham.

The highest party posts will change hands at the Congress, including the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the General Secretary of the Party, and several Politburo Standing Committee members. According to the CCP Charter, all of those positions (save the leadership of the Military Commission) should be determined by the votes of members of the 16th Central Committee. The 16th Party Congress should in turn elect the 16th Central Committee, Party Congress representatives should be elected by each provincial party congress, and so on.

In fact, these elections will be characterized by opacity and the absence of any real democratic process. Indeed, the only elections in China in which truly independent voters choose candidates occur at the village committee level, but this democratic mummery is staged mainly for the benefit of outside observers. All other Chinese elections share two main characteristics: candidates are selected to preserve party leaders, and the leaders decide the number of candidates.

China holds two types of election: "equal quota elections" and "differential quota elections." In equal quota elections, the leaders present three candidates, leaving voters the task of picking one. This is a sacred rule of Chinese politics, one that is considered entirely legitimate. In the past 50 years, all "elected" officials, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, were designated in ways that delivered the illusion of choice but without the element of uncertainty.