China's phantom democracy - with John Keane

Guest: John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

Host: Bob Carr, Director, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

Some observers describe China as an authoritarian regime or dictatorship. China is often perceived in these terms due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) apparent control over every aspect of China’s political life.

Are there elements of democracy in China’s political system? What are the implications of the recent constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits? What role does public opinion play in shaping the Chinese government’s policies and behaviour?

John Keane joins Bob Carr to discuss his new book, When trees fall, monkeys scatter (World Scientific, 2017), which explores the concept of a ‘phantom democracy’ in China and argues that the one-party system enjoys surprising levels of public support and resilience.

President Xi Jinping’s leadership should be viewed in the broader context of China’s political system, which is multifaceted and kaleidoscopic.

The Chinese government has encouraged locally made democratic mechanisms, the function of which is to secure popular support. More than 1 million elections to select local Party officials, using secret ballots, have been held in China since the late 1980s.

The CCP enlists the services of approximately 800 public opinion polling agencies, half of which are independent from the CCP. These agencies gauge the sentiment of Chinese citizens towards environmental, taxation and other policies, and inform the CCP's development and implementation of these policies. The Party has demonstrated increased tolerance of public opinion leaders, who express the views and concerns of their generation via online platforms.

China’s middle class is expanding rapidly, and they do not appreciate government interference in their personal affairs. Nevertheless, polls suggest they are not necessarily in favour of free and fair elections. There is a ‘silent contract’ between the middle class and Chinese government: as long as China is governed well and the middle class continues to live well, they will remain loyal.

Theme music by Sam J Mitchell.

March 15 2018